Bohemian Garnet Jewelry

For a long period of time, Bohemian garnet and other red-hued gemstones were classified as ‘karfunkle’, deriving from the Latin term ‘carbunculus’, meaning ‘burning charcoal’. The Bohemian garnet or ‘pyrope’ is one of the large groups of garnets of which two groups, aluminous and calcareous garnets are most frequently found in nature.

Aluminous garnets include the Bohemian garnet or pyrope, the almandine and the very rare spessartine. The iron-and-chromium-tinted pyrope ranges from fiery red to ruby-red and its deep coloring is maintained even in the smallest grains. Almandine has great resemblances with pyrope to the extent of making the two groups almost indistinguishable from each other.

The Bohemian garnet is a unique and distinctive gemstone which was properly identified only a few decades ago when gemologists were able to determine the gemstone’s characteristics and origins. From pre-historic time until the late 19th century, Bohemian garnet deposits were found only in Bohemia, predominantly in the Bohemian Highlands massif. During the 20th century, pyrope was imported to Europe from South Africa and Arizona. In the Middle Ages, pyrope was randomly collected in Bohemia by the Celtic people who did not possess the skill of mounting it in jewelry pieces. From the latter part of the 5th century until the middle of 6th century, the barbarian Germanic tribes embarked upon long-distance trading in pyrope and fashioned it into jewelry.

Among the earliest artifacts, dating back to those times is the inventory of the tomb of the Frankish King Childeric I who ruled in the period 436-482 over what is present day France and died in Tournai during his attempts to conquer the Belgian territory. In the year 1653, his tomb was excavated and its treasure comprised gold coins, weapons and garnet-decorated apparel and jewelry. The majority of items were lost and what remained lay unnoticed at the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. The Bohemian garnet pieces had to wait one more decade to be identified being dependent on new measuring methods being introduced by gemologists.

Goldsmiths’ workshops in Czechoslovakia began using Bohemian garnets during the 13th or 14th century and the specimens of their work can only be found in the National Museum of Prague. During the reign of Charles IV of Luxembourg, the garnets were referred to frequently in epic literature and in medical and astrological books called Lapidaries. In the legend ‘Life of St. Catherine’, the garnet is described to symbolize human virtues and placed amongst the finest gemstones.

In the meantime, Bohemian goldsmiths were learning how to compose individual Bohemian garnets into rosettes and also applied the table-cut and managed to shape the gems into simple nine to sixteen-faceted rose-cuts. In the Renaissance era, gem-cutters and engravers from Italy visited Prague and helped to improve the cutting and setting techniques of Bohemian garnets and by the early Baroque period, various objects were rimmed with rose-cut garnet frames, garnet rosaries, and silver-filigreed garnets.

In 1679, the famous Czech historian and patriot presented an accurate picture of the economic importance of Bohemia’s garnet fields, criticizing their uncontrolled exploitation by foreigners which led to the monopolization of garnet trading by the gem-cutting company Jiff Witthaler and Sons in Prague. The 1780’s were marked by the very first boom of the garnet-processing industry resulting in rising domestic demand and a prospering foreign trade with Germany, France and Italy.

Multiple strands of garnet necklaces and bracelets worn on both hands predominated the garnet jewelry market, the latter enhanced by the common belief that wearing garnet bracelets would help the circulation and cleansing of blood. Influenced by the Neoclassical and Biedermeier styles, finger rings featured a combination of garnets and rock crystals, citrines, agate and lapis lazuli. Jewels of that period were set with large garnets, multi-faceted rose-cuts, pear-shaped cuts, and navettes. It was the first time for Bohemian garnets to be used in most exquisite jewelry and with decorative details.

Three parallel styles emerged in the production of garnet jewelry in the 1840’s. These consisted of the Baroque and Gothic Revival styles and, after 1870, the Neo-Renaissance style. The Baroque Revival silhouette of women’s gowns called for jewelry motifs of larger sizes, especially on brooches, bracelets, and earrings. Adopting an eclectic composition of jewelry, individual elements of various styles and periods were applied to a single parure or piece of jewelry, while elaborating the contemporary fashion designs. Highly decorative bow-shaped bracelets characteristic of the Biedermeier and Baroque Revival styles remained in vogue for almost half a century.

From the mid-19th century, machine-stamped rims were gradually introduced and the innovative technique of pavĂ©-setting was adopted. Around 1870, the Neo-Renaissance style enriched garnet jewelry designs with antique motifs, the foremost designer of which was the architect Josef Schulz who taught the Renaissance style at the Vocational Goldsmith School of Prague for a period of 10 years. From the 1880’s, the manufacture and distribution of garnet jewelry became concentrated in large enterprises which provided machine-pressed metal settings and garnets, with branches in Vienna, Germany and Russia. At the Great Jubilee Exposition held in Prague in 1891, modern styles in garnet jewelry were exhibited alongside traditional designs and the ‘Retrospective Exhibition’ pavilion displayed over one thousand historical arts-and-crafts objects.

Unlike the ostentatious and ornate settings of the past, the avant-garde garnet jewelry designs offered the simplicity of geometric forms and the use of cabochon or low-faceted garnets. A few years later, the ‘Ethnographic Exhibition’ held in 1895, introduced another novelty in garnet jewelry, namely a repertory of folk-art ornamentation including motifs of pomegranates, roses, tulips, and spirals.

The avant-garde jewelry styles of the Functionalist and Cubist periods were introduced in the year 1908 by the Jeweler’s School in Turnov and further developed by jewelers of the 1920’s. These patterns have been repeated and adapted until the present time.

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