Grape Garnet: Shock Rock
Judging by its reception in Bloomington, Minnesota, you might think that grape garnet was a new Nike shoe or the latest Chanel fragrance. Last fall, local jeweler Dan Wixon stocked nearly 70 pendants, pairs of earrings, and tennis bracelets featuring this budget beauty for Christmas. Despite prices as high as $3,000, every piece of grape garnet jewelry was gone by mid-December, too late to order replacements in time for the final frenzied tide of Yule shopping that made 1996 the store’s best year ever. As a result, Wixon is sure he lost thousands of dollars in extra sales. “It was a stupid error on my part,” he chastises himself many months later.
Wixon can be forgiven for underestimating the potential of an obscure deep-purple garnet from India that first hit the U.S. market in 1996. While he prides himself on having one of the largest and most varied colored stone inventories in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Wixon had no inkling of the newcomer’s immediate impact on customers. “I have stocked every garnet with the slightest commercial appeal that has been discovered in recent years,” he says. “But this stuff blows every other garnet in its price range out of the water.”
There are many reasons grape garnet made such a big splash—the most obvious, of course, being the uncanny resemblance of its color to grape juice. “We’re not talking the usual pinkish or brownish-red garnet color here but pure purple,” Wixon says. “This is a color that commands full attention the moment you notice it.”
But there’s more to this gem’s success than its unique wine-dark color. Wixon notes that grape garnet delivers more dazzle and durability for the money than just about any other gem he has ever sold. “When customers saw tennis bracelets in my showcases with color so unique and brilliance as good as that of diamonds, they did double takes,” he recalls. “So even with prices from $1,000 to $3,000, those bracelets flew out of here.”
No wonder Wixon lauds grape garnet as “today’s best gem value” on his rather extensive list of affordable colored stones. “My salespeople love to sell it,” he says.
Such praise is music to the ears of Eric Braunwart, president of Columbia Gem House, Vancouver, Washington, the man who patiently accumulated enough material to make a market for this gem and whose daughter inspired its apt name one morning at breakfast while drinking guess what (a clue: it’s the most famous grape drink other than wine).
Trial and error
While grape garnet got off to a running start in Wixon's store, it got off to a very slow start as new gemstones go. Indeed, when the stone, found only at one alluvial area in the Indian state of Orissa, was first shown to Braunwart 15 years ago, its glorious Welch’s grape-juice color was not enough to get his juices flowing. “The flat, windowed pieces of rough with lots of exploded bubbles inside them that I saw presented seemingly insurmountable problems,” he recalls.