The History of Birthstones
By: Clara Marie Fischer
Like the magical runes of a fantasy adventure, birthstones have been used for thousands of years to create health, protect good fortune, and to ward off evil spirits. But not many people realize the deep significance of birthstones in religion, astrology, and their important part in ancient history.
The tradition of the birthstone dates back thousands of years. While virtually all cultures have used special stones to divine and channel helpful energies, historians trace their use among Western peoples to the Book of Exodus, and a sacred piece of armor that was forged to bring a desperate people together.
During Israel's time wandering the desert, legend says that the Hebrew high priest Aaron built a special breastplate embedded with twelve stones. The gold filigree breastplate was said to be quite small – only the width of a human hand. The stones were set in four rows and represented the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the months of the year. Every tribe had its seal inscribed on the face of their respective stone. One interpretation of Exodus states these original stones were ruby, beryl, topaz, turquoise, sapphire, emerald, jacinth, agate, amethyst, chrysoprasus, and jasper. But since ancient people did not classify gemstones the same as modern geologists, there is some uncertainty as to which stones were used.
Over time, different cultures began assigning different stones to different uses. While modern lists include twelve stones set to closely correspond with traditional and some ancient birthstone catalogs, nonetheless many other lists have appeared in the past. There is also some belief that gemstones should be assigned not according to month but to astrological (Zodiac) signs. The modern birthstone system very closely resembles that used by the ancient Roman Empire. The Romans were meticulous timekeepers and arranged the birthstones according to their calendar.
Beginning in the 20th Century, birthstones became very popular in jewelry design and baby jewelry design, with the gift of a birthstone meant to commemorate a birth, a birthday, or simply to bestow the giver's best wishes for good health and good fortune. Some practitioners of New Age healing assign different properties to various stones and gems, including cures for common ailments such as arthritis, allergies, and headaches.
In America, the modern birthstone calendar was formalized in 1912 by the Jewelers of America association, and their list is now used not just in the United States but also in many other parts of the world. Over time, the list has been amended to include similar, but less expensive, alternates to the various stones. Those alternates are given in parenthesis below:
January: Garnet (Rose Quartz)
February: Amethyst (Onyx)
March: Aquamarine (Jasper or Bloodstone)
April: Diamond (Quartz)
May: Emerald (Chrysoprase)
June: Pearl (Alexandrite or Moonstone)
July: Ruby (Jade or Carnelian)
August: Peridot (Aventurine, Sardonyx, or Sapphire)
September: Sapphire (Lapis Lazuli)
October: Opal (Pink Tourmaline)
November: Yellow Topaz (Citrine or Turquoise)
December: Blue Zircon (Turquoise, Lapis Lazuli, or Tanzanite)