Written by rdjadmin On May 2, 2013.
Twenty-eight years after it was discovered in 1868, gemology pioneer Max Bauer wrote that demantoid garnet would probably never earn full-fledged gem status. Much as he admired the stone, Bauer thought it was too small, soft, and scarce to merit anything more than curiosity.
Just about the same time, the late nineteenth century’s other great gemology pioneer, George Kunz, was in the Ural Mountains of Russia, demantoid’s prime source, buying every piece of demantoid rough he could find. Kunz, on leave from Tiffany’s where he served as the store’s chief gem buyer, was financed by banker/tycoon J. Pierpont Morgan, an avid gem collector.
For more than a decade, Kunz had been a devotee of the Russian green garnet, so much so that Tiffany’s made more extensive use of the gem than any other jewelry store of the age. Indeed, demantoid was as closely associated with Tiffany’s in the late nineteenth century as tsavorite, a distant-relative green grossular garnet discovered 100 years after demantoid in East Africa, is with Tiffany’s in the late twentieth century. True, demantoid was a darling of upper crust English and French jewelers, as well as Faberge. But the gem owes much of its popularity with connoisseurs today to the Tiffany mystique: despite the fact that it has been at least 65 years since the last significant production of Ural Mountain demantoid.
Thanks to Kunz, demantoid achieved, and still retains, an importance far disproportionate to its availability. “Maybe one in every 10,000 pieces of Victorian jewelry used demantoid,” says jewelry historian Joseph Gill. “Yet you’d never think how little of it there actually was with all the fuss they make about it today.”
Why the big fuss? The gem’s name gives a clue to the cognoscenti’s lingering love.
Dispersion Greater Than Diamond
Almost all garnets are plagued by very low dispersion, the separation of light into spectral colors as each wavelength bends different degrees. But demantoid, a member of the andradite family, is an exception, blessed with more of this attribute than even diamond, a stone prized for its dispersion. No wonder, then, that the garnet’s first sellers named it demantoid (meaning diamond-like), after the Dutch word “demant” for diamond. (In case you’re wondering why marketers used a Dutch word, keep in mind that Amsterdam was still the world’s principal diamond-cutting center at the time the garnet first came on the market.)
The new garnet’s fiery brilliance gave the stone, usually found in small sizes, a decided edge over emerald and peridot, the period’s leading green gems. Indeed, Gill says, demantoid was often sold as “olivene” or “Uralian emerald.” That is why many pieces of Victorian gemstone jewelry made between 1885 and 1915 feature demantoid. In fact, the stone is almost wholly identified with the Victorian era.
Luckily for demantoid, America and England had fallen under the heavy spell of Darwin-inspired naturalism. The resulting fascination with brute nature was manifested in jewelry design as a voguish use of bird, fish, flower and reptile motifs. Since green symbolized nature, jewelers gravitated toward emerald. However, motif pieces were set with many small stones and in small sizes, nothing could match the brilliance of demantoid, so most of the pieces were set with these gems.
No doubt, larger demantoids would have figured as prominently in late nineteenth century jewelry, only supply prevented it. The stone is extremely rare in sizes over two carats.
The Telltale Inclusion
Demantoid garnet is probably the only gem whose inclusions are considered an aesthetic property, as important as color and brilliance. Believe it or not, the value of a stone depends heavily on the prominence and definition of what are called “horse-tail” inclusions (bundles of byssolite- a form of asbestos- that spray out in a curve from a central chromite crystal).
Although a few yellowish-green garnets containing horse tails have been found in the Italian Alps, this happens so infrequently that most gem dealers still consider the horse tail to be, in effect, a Ural Mountain birthmark. “Technically speaking, the horse tail isn’t conclusive proof of Russian origin,” warns one gemologist. “It’s just a very good indicator. To be absolutely sure, you’d have to do chemical analyses.”
Consumers may wonder why such ado is made over finding one particular type of inclusion in the first place. Does it really matter if a demantoid is from Russia? The answer is yes. A large part of demantoid’s mystique, historians note, is its Ural heritage. Since these mountains also produced small amounts of alexandrite, emerald and pink topaz, the best of which are said to be paragons of these species, Ural mountain gems have a prestige based on locality.
This doesn’t mean that a horse-tail is all that matters when buying demantoid. But its presence certainly helps to distinguish stones from horse-tail-free ones found in Czechoslovakia, Arizona, Mexico, and, more recently, Namibia, as well as the majority of stones from Italy. Another difference is color. Most non-Russian stones are so yellow (the result of coloring by iron as opposed to chromium) that they should perhaps be called topazolite, a greenish-yellow andradite.
Of the 325 items offered at Christie’s Hong Kong $12 million jewelry sale on April 28, Lot 1261 was hardly the most valuable. But this belle epoque ring featuring a 4-carat oval-cut demantoid garnet surrounded by old-mine and rose-cut melee diamonds was among the rarest, the most unusual, and the most soul-stirring-enough to drive the final price for the piece $8,000 over its highest pre-sale estimate to $40,000. While that’s nowhere near the kind of cash routinely forked over for kindred-quality specimens of their most favorite green gems, emerald and jadeite, it’s startlingly big bucks for green garnet. How do you explain that kind of money being spent for an andradite when ordinarily $4,000 per carat is considered top dollar for this species?