A friend of mine recently asked me “Why garnet?”, and it occurred to me that others might also like to hear one petrologist’s thoughts as to why it is such a well-studied metamorphic mineral.
1. They are pretty!
2. They are very common in a wide rang
e of metamorphic rock types.
3. They are stable across a reasonably broad range of pressures and temperatures of relevance for metamorphism.
4. The often form “porphyroblasts” (metamorphic crystals that are noticeably larger than those which surround them).
5. They are easy to identify in hand-samples—their nice “garnet-red” colour often contrasts with the other minerals in the sample (though some of the less common varieties come in other colours, including green and yellow).
6. They are easy to identify in thin-section (a slice of rock only ~3 microns thick, which means that light transmits through most of the minerals so that one can look at it in an optical microscope): they have a high “relief” (they look like they are taller than the things next to them, even though they aren’t) and they are isotropic (they are solid black when the polarizing filters are crossed, no matter how the stage is turned, making them stand out against the changing bright blues, pinks, and yellows that the other minerals become when the polarizing filters are crossed).
7. They have a rather broad range of possible chemical compositions, with iron, magnesium, manganese, and calcium all able to slot into the same position in the crystal structure (this is part of what gives it a broad range of stable temperatures and pressures) and aluminum and silica can also do a certain amount of swapping one for the other. There are a handful of other, less common elements which can also substitute for others in its crystal structure.
8. They have very slow diffusion, which means that once they reach a certain size the center of the grains no longer get involved in chemical reactions. As a result it is normal for the composition of garnets to be “zoned”, with the center containing more Mn than the rims, and the rims containing more Mg than the core (each of the other major elements also typically change their concentration from core to rim).
We metamorphic petrologists talk about the garnet cores being “armored” by the rims. The rims are, in theory, in equilibrium (or trying to achieve equilibrium) with the matrix minerals at any given time—this means that the minerals present will be participating in the chemical reactions that are causing the growth of some minerals and the dissolution of others. For many minerals the normal grain size is small enough that the reactions involve the entire grains, but garnets often grow large enough that only the outermost shell is involved in the reactions, with the inner portion “freezing” in whatever composition was stable when it was the outer portion.
So, just as an Everlasting Gobstopper (do they still make those candies?) changes colors as you suck on it, so garnets show a range of compositions from core to rim. Part of the changes in garnet composition are due to rare ingredients having been used up making garnet (plus or minus any other zoned minerals present). So Mn, which tends to prefer garnet to any other mineral in metamorphic rocks, starts out “high” in garnet, but there is usually so little of it available in any given metamorphic rock it is soon used up and the garnets have gradually less and less Mn as they grow, until eventually the outer portions have no measurable Mn at all. The other reasons garnets change their composition is due to changes in pressure or temperature. Different recipes of garnet are stable at different pressures and temperatures. So if the conditions change different types of garnet grow on the outside of the pre-existing garnet. These features all combine to make it a very well-studied mineral because of all of the inform
ation one can extract about the history of the rock.
A large garnet in the wild (southwest coast of Tasmania, photo taken by Andrew McNiel):
Garnets (2mm) in thin-section from Collingwood River, Tasmania (also shown are biotite (brown), muscovite (pale but wavy lines), quartz (colorless and without lines + dots in the garnet):
Same garnets as above, but in crossed-polarized light: