The Origin of Birthstones
The idea of a birthstone, a gemstone that corresponds to a person’s birth month, is a relatively modern creation. However, its origin dates back to biblical times. Historians believe the twelve gemstones of the breastplate of Aaron corresponded originally to the twelve tribes of Israel. However, Josephus and St. Jerome, in the 1st and 5th centuries CE respectively, began linking these gems with the signs of the zodiac. Presumably, each stone offered wearers special powers during the corresponding astrological period. Therefore, people tried to collect and wear all twelve gems throughout the year as talismans or for therapeutic benefits.
The modern association of one gem to each month, and the practice of wearing just the stone connected to your birth month, arose between the 16th and 18th centuries. The list of so-called ancient or “traditional birthstones” originated in Poland during this time. In the United States in 1912, the National Association of Jewelers released a list of so-called “modern birthstones.”
How do Traditional and Modern Birthstone Jewelry Differ?
Although the lists differ somewhat, romantic gem enthusiasts in Western cultures today commonly choose birthstones from both selections. While most contemporary consumers don’t typically attribute special powers to these stones, the gems do have popular meanings and associations.
While traditional birthstones include a mix of transparent and opaque gems, such as opal, pearl, and turquoise, the modern list features only transparent gems. Practically speaking, this makes it easier to mix different gems into one piece of modern birthstone jewelry. However, if you prefer the traditional look to the modern alternative, choose one of the ancient stones for your jewelry.
Garnet is January’s traditional and modern birthstone. Although garnets are a blend of mineral species with many commonalities, the deep red variety is most associated with January. However, garnets range in color from deep red and dark pink/purple to yellow, orange, and several shades of green. You might even find an incredibly rare blue garnet.
Garnets popularly signify trust and friendship. Traditionally, this gem was believed to protect people during their travels. Due to its hardness, a garnet makes an excellent stone for jewelry intended for daily wear.
Amethyst has many popular associations, including serenity and royalty. Traditionally, it’s believed to provide courage and strengthen relationships. It appears as the February birthstone on both the traditional and modern lists.
You can find amethysts in a wide range of violet colors, from pale lavender to deep, rich purple. While deeper hues typically draw higher values, your choice should ultimately depend on your color preference. Amethyst has good hardness as well as no cleavage. This makes it ideal for everyday wear.
Aquamarine is March’s modern birthstone. These gems have a wide range of blue and blue-green colors, including a deep, yet pastel, blue and a nearly clear shade of blue. Darker stones commonly have greater value. However, many consumers prefer the lighter, clearer stones in their jewelry. This gemstone exhibits good hardness and excellent transparency and clarity. Unlike other members of the beryl family, aquamarine doesn’t have cleavage or inclusions. Thus, it makes a strong, durable gemstone for jewelry.
In the past, people attributed healing powers to aquamarine, especially for the heart, liver, and stomach. Today, this stone’s associations include youth, health, hope, and love.
April boasts the well-known diamond as its traditional and modern birthstone. You can find diamonds in just about any shade imaginable. Its colors range from clear to black and every color of the rainbow in between. Though colorless diamonds are the most popular jewelry choices, other colors, such as yellow, champagne, and brown are gaining ground.
Often chosen for engagement and wedding rings, diamond has long symbolized love, marriage, and courage. The hardest known material makes an excellent stone for any type of jewelry.
Emerald, another beryl variety, has a rich body of symbolism, including associations with fertility, health, and faithfulness. This traditional and modern May birthstone has served as a symbol of rebirth throughout history. This green gem was said to have been Cleopatra’s favorite. According to traditional beliefs, this gem brings its owner foresight, youth, and good fortune. So if you have a May birthday, wear your birthstone in good health.
Historically, the birthstone for June was the pearl. This organic gemstone has a long history of jewelry use that continues to this day. Many myths and legends have grown around pearls, as well. However, alexandrite, a relative newcomer to the gem world, has taken its place on the modern list.
First discovered in Russia in the 19th century, alexandrite was named after the future Czar Alexander II. This incredibly rare gem can also change colors. Alexandrite appears green in daylight but changes to a purple-red color beneath incandescent lighting.
Alexandrite has no ancient meanings. However, some people associate it with heightened intuition and pleasure. Without question, natural alexandrites command extremely high prices per carat. If you opt for this modern birthstone, you may have to settle for a synthetic, but still very expensive, alexandrite.
An exceptionally hard stone, medium to medium-dark red rubies with little to no purple or orange generally demand the highest prices. Rubies belong to the corundum family. They are the red variety of this mineral. All other colors, including pinks, are considered sapphire.
You may have a difficult time buying fine quality rubies. However, you can find stones of acceptable quality in a variety of shapes and sizes. Rubies make exceptional jewelry stones.
Peridot is the modern birthstone for August. You can find this gem in colors ranging from yellow-green to brown. However, the light green or lime green variety has the strongest popular connection to August.
Traditionally, peridot symbolized strength and was used as a ward against nightmares, evil, and enchantments. The ancient Hawaiians believed these stones were the tears of the goddess Pele brought to the surface by volcanoes.
The traditional August birthstone is sardonyx, a red and white variety of chalcedony.
Although most associated with blue, sapphire comes in a wide variety of colors. In fact, this September birthstone, traditional and modern, occurs in every color except red. (Sapphire, by definition, is the non-red gem variety of corundum). Sapphires have many symbolic associations and a rich folklore. Traditionally, this stone was believed to protect your loved ones from harm. In the Middle Ages, Christian clergy wore blue sapphires as symbols of heaven. For many gem enthusiasts, these gems now symbolize wisdom, purity, and faith.
Durable sapphires make great gems for daily wear jewelry. Typically, pure blue stones or blue stones with a green or purple tint rank as the most valuable. However, you can also choose beautiful pink, purple, orange, green, and yellow as well as colorless stones. Star sapphires are some of the most desired gems in the world.
Tourmaline is the modern October birthstone. These gems come in many varieties and colors, including beautiful multicolored stones.
Opal is the traditional October birthstone. These gems are perhaps most well known for their play of colors and have their own unique gem grading system. Opals also have one of the most divergent sets of symbolic associations. You can choose to believe they’re the luckiest or unluckiest gems in the world.
Once upon a time, before modern gemology, all yellow stones were considered topaz. In the early 20th century, gemologists defined topaz as a distinct gem species which included yellow as well as blue, pink, purple, and other varieties. So, the traditional November birthstone transformed into the modern version, yellow or golden topaz. However, you can pick the topaz color you like best for birthstone jewelry.
Historically, people believed golden topaz could attract wealth as well as protect the health of your mind and body. In particular, golden topaz could help your eyesight. Today, some view this gem as a sign of love and affection.
While opaque turquoise and lapis lazuli were the traditional December birthstones, the modern shift to transparent gems made blue zircon the modern birthstone.
Although zircon colors also include yellow, orange, green, red, and colorless, blue stones are the officially designated birthstones. However, you can choose whatever color you prefer. Some people believe zircons may relieve pain and boost your appetite.
When shopping for these gems, look for clear stones with few to no flaws and consistent color throughout.