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Unveiled: The Fascinating History of Birthstones

 Ever wonder where the Idea of Birthstones came from? Why does June have three gems and January only has one? Let's explore the origins, symbolisms, and modern changes of birthstones!



Garnet, the Birthstone for January
Garnet, the Birthstone for January


 

 

The tradition of birthstones can be traced as far back as BCE in biblical records. The Book of Exodus describes a breastplate worn by the first high priest of the Israelites, Aaron. This breastplate was to be passed down to all future high priests. The breastplate had 12 different stones embedded in it, each representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The stones allegedly contained great power and could predict people's fate.


“According to first-century translations, the first row contained carnelian, chrysolite, and beryl.  The second row contained jacinth, agate, and amethyst, and the third row contained topaz, onyx, and jasper. The naming of minerals at the time was dependent on color rather than chemical composition, so it is difficult to determine which gems were used.” -Amanda Butcher, gemsociety.org.


Around the first century, historian Titus Flavius Josephus (36-100 CE) believed that the 12 stones could be connected to the 12 months of the year and the 12 zodiac signs. Then St. Jerome of Stridon (347-419/420 CE) began to encourage the use of the stones in the fifth century.

 


Amythyst, February birthstone
Amythyst, February birthstone


The tradition can also be found in Hindu traditions, as the Ratna Pariksha, a fifth-century Hindu text, describes the relationship between gemstones and deities, days of the week, and stars. Hindu practices associate nine gemstones with different celestial forces, Navaratna. Certain indicial stones were recommended by Vedic astrologers based on birth charts to harness the power of specific planters and ward off harm.  


As trade began to grow between the East and West due to the Silk Road (130 BCE until 1453 CE), this idea of the stones as protection moved to the West. By the ninth century, the tradition had evolved to wear a specific birthstone during a certain month when the stone was believed to have heightened powers.

 

The modern idea of wearing a stone for a person's birth month did not begin until the 16th in either modern Germany or Poland.  This was the start of the birthstone trend we know today.



Topaz, Novembers birthstone
Topaz, November birthstone

 


The Gregorian Birthstone Poem was published by Tiffany & Co.'s in 1870 in a pamphlet with an unknown author. These poems listed a stone for each month of the year:


By her who in this month [January] is born

No gem save garnets should be worn;

They will ensure her constancy,

True friendship, and fidelity.


The February-born shall find

Sincerity and peace of mind,

Freedom from passion and from care,

If they an amethyst will wear.


Who in this world of ours their eyes

In March first open shall be wise,

In days of peril firm and brave,

And wear a bloodstone to their grave.


She who from April dates her years,

Diamonds shall wear, lest bitter tears

For vain repentance flow; this stone,

Emblem of innocence, is known.


Who first beholds the light of day

In spring’s sweet flowery month of May

And wears an emerald all her life

Shall be a loved and happy wife.


Who comes with summer to this earth,

And owes to June her hour of birth,

With ring of agate on her hand

Can health, wealth, and long life command.


The glowing ruby shall adorn,

Those who in July are born;

Then they’ll be exempt and free

From love’s doubts and anxiety.


Wear a sardonyx or for thee,

No conjugal felicity;

The August-born without this stone,

`Tis said, must live unloved and lone.


A maiden born when September leaves

Are rustling in September’s breeze,

A sapphire on her brow should bind

`Twill cure diseases of the mind.


October’s child is born for woe,

And life’s vicissitudes must know,

But lay an opal on her breast,

And hope will lull those woes to rest.


Who first comes to this world below

With drear November’s fog and snow,

Should prize the topaz’s amber hue,

Emblem of friends and lovers true.


If cold December gave you birth,

The month of snow and ice and mirth,

Place on your hand a turquoise blue;

Success will bless whate’er you do.


-Anonymous


“Even though birthstones had already become an international trend rooted in centuries-long practice, there was still no consensus on the list of birthstones. That wasn't until the year 1912, that the National Association of Jewelers met to officially standardize the list of American birthstones and each month that they represented. This list combined various customs that had evolved while ensuring the stones they chose would be practical for American jewelers to sell and promote in large quantities.” -Amanda Butcher, gemsociety.org.


The list was altered again in 1952 by the Jewelry Industry Council of American Jewelers, who added 4 more stones to the list. This was so that all the stones would match better when people could wear multiple for their children.

 


 


 Monthly stones based on Aaron's Breastplate:


These were based on the color of the described stones and the different translations of the bible*.


17 The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl; 18 the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald; 19 the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst; 20 the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper.[b] Mount them in gold filigree settings.

Exodus 28:17-20 NIV


The first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle: this shall be the first row. And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond. And the third row a ligure, an agate, and an amethyst. And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper: they shall be set in gold in their inclosing.

Exodus 28:17-20 KJV


*Different translations also cite ruby, moonstone, "calf's eye", chalcedony, and chrysolite as being included/replacing certain stones.*


Birthstone List 1912 standardization and update:


Month

1912

update in 1952

January

Garnet

-

February

Amethyst

-

March

Aquamarine, Bloodstone

-

April

Diamond

-

May

Emerald

-

June

Moonstone, Pearl

added Alexandrite

July

Ruby

-

August

Peridot

-

September

Sapphire

-

October

Opal

added Tourmaline

November

Topaz

added Citrine

December

Turquoise, Zircon

added Lapis, removed Zircon




 


 

Birthstones for each month. GIA. (n.d.). https://www.gia.edu/birthstones


Butcher, A. (2021, January 20). History of birthstones. International Gem Society. https://www.gemsociety.org/article/history-of-birthstones/


Denise. (2023, October 17). The history of 12 birthstones of the year - time & treasures. Time and Treasures. https://timeandtreasures.com/history-of-the-12-birthstones-of-the-year/


Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2024, January 12). St. Jerome. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Jerome


Miller-Wilson, K. (2023, May 25). History of birthstones & how they got their meaning. LoveToKnow. https://www.lovetoknow.com/life/style/history-birthstones




 


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