When choosing a gemstone many people will select their birthstone. But where did the meaning of birthstones come from? The origins of birthstones is fascinating.
Birthstones are not a modern trend. Wearing gemstones to protect and empower the wearer has a long tradition.
The origin of birthstones may have been influenced by both eastern and western beliefs and traditions.
The Book of Exodus describes the breastplate of Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites. The breastplate was adorned with 12 different stones, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The stones were said to possess great powers including the ability to predict a person’s future.
Some 500 years later, these 12 gemstones were thought to represent each of the twelve months of the year and the 12 signs of the zodiac.
By the 5th century, Christians began to collect all the stones to be worn together in jewellery. Several centuries on, the practice had evolved to wearing one gemstone during a particular month, when that stone was thought to have increased powers.
Gemstones in Indian jewellery have always had far more significance than the beauty of the gemstone.
The 5th century Hindu text, the Ratnapariksha, chronicles the symbolism of each gemstone and its links to deities, celestial bodies and the days of the week. Certain gemstones were considered to have unfavourable influences/energies whilst others were considered to have favourable ones.
Ruby, sapphire, coral, hyacinth (a yellowish-red zircon) & cat’s eye (this term originally only applied to chrysoberyl cat’s eye) fell into the former category. Emerald, pearl, diamond & topaz fell into the latter category.
A different gemstone is associated with each of the nine planets.
Emeralds were associated with the planet Mercury, Wednesday and the beneficent god Budha.
Sapphires were associated with the planet Saturn, Saturday and the fearsome god Shani.
When all 9 gemstones are worn in one piece of jewellery known as a navaratna (“nine jewels”), the wearer is believed to have complete harmony with the navagraha, the 9 planets.
The 9 gemstones are:
Ruby (representing the sun, it is always in the centre of the jewellery), emerald, sapphire, coral, diamond, pearl, turquoise, hyacinth (yellowish-red zircon), cat’s eye chrysoberyl.
Astrological birth charts were also used to suggest different gemstones for each sign to empower & protect the wearer.
The modern tradition of wearing one birthstone for your birth month is thought to have begun in the 16th century either in Germany or Poland.
There was a lack of consistency about which gemstone applied to which month. That was until 1912!
In 1912, the American institution, the National Association of Jewelers, drew up a list of American birthstones and provided the first consensus.
There was probably a commercial angle behind the desire to standardise a list. It was unlikely to include gemstones that were not readily available to American jewellers and of course would spark interest in buying a birthstone either for the buyer or as a gift to a loved one.
The list has been modified since 1912.
In 1952, The Jewelry Industry Council of America added alexandrite to June, citrine to November, pink tourmaline to October and zircon to December.
In 2002, tanzanite was added to December.
In 2016, spinel was added to August.
These last two modifications reflect ‘new’ discoveries, increased popularity and availability. Tanzanite was discovered in the late 1960’s and there have been significant finds and increased awareness of spinel since 2010.
Obviously as ‘new’ gemstones are discovered or become more readily available in the market, further modifications may be made to the list.
However, can we be sure that there is true consensus, when there are two lists of birthstones to choose from?
The modern birthstone list is that established by the National Association of Jewelers, but the traditional birthstone list also includes birthstones that historically have been associated with each month.
December: Turquoise or Lapis
August: Peridot or Spinel
October: Opal or Tourmaline
November: Golden Topaz or Citrine
December: Blue Zircon, Blue Topaz, or Tanzanite
I suspect that those born in March and August and possibly those born in December, may not have be too happy with their birthstones in the Traditional list, which may be why they were not included in the Modern list. Certainly bloodstone, sardonyx and turquoise were not quite as fashionable for jewellery in 1912 as they had been during the late 1800s.
The waters are further muddied by the Zodiac gemstones.
Certain gemstones are also associated with each sign of the zodiac.
Star Sign Dates Gemstone
Capricorn 22 Dec–19 Jan Ruby
Aquarius 20 Jan–18 Feb Garnet
Pisces 19 Feb–20 Mar Amethyst
Aries 22 Mar–19 Apr Bloodstone
Taurus 20 Apr–20 May Sapphire
Gemini 21 May–21 Jun Agate
Cancer 22 Jun–22 Jul Emerald
Leo 23 Jul–22 Aug Onyx
Virgo 23 Aug–22 Sep Carnelian
Libra 23 Sep–23 Oct Peridot
Scorpio 24 Oct–21 Nov Beryl
Sagittarius 22 Nov–21 Dec Topaz
We should say immediately before anyone reaches for their keyboard, that we found that different sources gave different dates for the zodiac signs, so we went with those in the Britannica.
Obviously, there may still be some confusion because of the two lists.
However, the good news is that there is plenty of choice for you!
If you don’t like the gemstone that is assigned to your birth month or star sign in one list have a look at the other lists!
American Gem Society
Courtney A. Stewart: In the Stars: Gems and the Indian Tradition
Amanda Butcher: History of Birthstones