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Birthstones have become an international jewelry trend, but have you ever wondered where this tradition began? Here is your rundown on the centuries-long, worldwide history of birthstones.
By Amanda Butcher 5 minute read

What is a Birthstone?

Birthstones have become very popular for gift-givers and gem-lovers for their dazzling array of colors and the personal sentiment they can represent. In the modern tradition, there are one to three gemstones representing every birth month of the year, each with its own history and legends behind it. Birthstones can usually be found adorning rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, allowing the wearer to celebrate their special day on any occasion.

 Biblical Origins

The origins of this tradition can be traced all the way back to biblical times and the Book of Exodus. It describes the breastplate worn by Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites, which was to be worn by all future high priests. The breastplate was adorned with 12 different stones, each representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel. These stones were said to have possessed great powers and had the ability to tell people their 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 were dependent on color rather than chemical composition, so it is difficult to determine which gems were actually used. For example, chrysolite was used to describe gems with flecks of gold, which could have included topaz or peridot.

14K Rose Gold Oval Halo Peridot and Diamond Necklace (7.0x5.0mm) James Allen

Peridot is now a birthstone for August, a tradition that can be traced back to Aaron’s breastplate © James Allen

It wasn’t until the first century, around 500 years after Aaron’s breastplate was described in the Book of Exodus, where the historian Joseph believed there to be a connection between the 12 stones in Aaron’s breastplate, the 12 months of the year, and the 12 zodiac signs. Historian St. Jerome, referencing Joseph, began to encourage the use of these stones by Christians in the 5th century. This established a tradition that would last for centuries, in which people would collect all of the 12 stones to wear at one time in extravagant belts, bracelets, and other ornaments. By the 8th and 9th centuries, this trend evolved to where people would own a collection of all of the jewels but only wear a single stone during a given month, where it was believed to have heightened powers. This most likely came from eastern traditions believing that birthstones can provide the wearer with protection and powers, as trade between the east and west began to surge during this time period. The modern tradition of wearing one stone for their month of birth did not begin until the 16th century and originated in either Germany or Poland.  This was the start of the birthstone trend we are familiar with today.

Hindu Roots

The tradition of stones representing your birth month with mystical powers can also be found in Hindu traditions, most likely influencing customs in the west as well. The Ratna Pariksha, a 5th-century Hindu text, chronicles the relationships between gemstones and deities, celestial bodies, and days of the week. Hindu practices associate nine gemstones with the different celestial forces, called navaratna in Sanskrit. Jewelry in this style always centers bright red ruby or spinel, surrounding it with the rest of the gems on either side. These pieces are believed to grant the wearer a cosmic harmony, as well as stand as a symbol of status and wealth. Certain individual stones are then recommended by Vedic astrologers based on astrological birth charts to harness the power of certain planets or ward off the harm of others.

14K Rose Gold Imperial Ruby and Diamond Ring James Allen

Ruby, the birthstone of July, relates to the planet sun according to Hindu astrology. © James Allen

Modern Traditions

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, where the National Association of Jewelers met in order to officially standardize the list of American birthstones and each month that they represented. This list combined various customs that had evolved over time while ensuring the stones they chose would be practical for American jewelers to sell and promote in large quantities. It was then modified in 1952 by the Jewelry Industry Council of America, adding alexandrite to June, citrine to November, pink tourmaline to October, and zircon to December. Although the list has nearly remained the same since then, in 2002 the gem Tanzanite was added to December’s stones, and just as recently as 2016 spinel was added to the month of August.

Tanzanite Cushion and Diamond Halo Ring Blue Nile

Tanzanite, the newest December stone, is known for its rich violet-blue color and rarity- found in only one mine in Tanzania © Blue Nile

What is My Birthstone?

The modern birthstone list is the list established by the National Association of Jewelers, but the traditional birthstone list also includes birthstones that have been historically associated with each month. Most people choose between the two lists depending on their taste and the look they are going for with their piece. There are also lists of alternative birthstones based on astrological signs, guardian angels, seasons, and even birth hours, providing you with a large range of options to find the perfect gem to represent you.

Opal and Diamond Halo Ring in 18k White Gold Blue Nile

Although opal is not on the traditional list, it is still a popular traditional October birthstone because of its glistening rainbow of colors. © Blue Nile

Modern Birthstone List:

January — Garnet
February — Amethyst
March — Aquamarine
April — Diamond
May — Emerald
June — Alexandrite
July — Ruby
August — Peridot or Spinel
September — Sapphire
October — Tourmaline
November — Golden Topaz or Citrine
December — Blue Zircon, Blue Topaz, or Tanzanite

Traditional Birthstone List:

January — Garnet
February — Amethyst
March — Bloodstone
April — Diamond
May — Emerald
June — Pearl
July — Ruby
August — Sardonyx
September — Sapphire
October — Opal
November — Topaz
December — Turquoise or Lapis

Wearing Birthstones

The rich history and fun, glistening colors of birthstones have made them incredibly popular to wear in rings, bracelets, pendants, and earrings. They make for an excellent, personalized gift for a loved one to show how much you care. Birthstones can make for especially beautiful gifts for mothers or family members, where birthstones can be combined to create a colorful, custom piece to represent your family.

You can shop for birthstone jewelry in all shapes and sizes at James Allen and Blue Nile.  Their extensive collections of jewelry for each month will make sure your piece is as special as you are.

Cushion Swiss Blue Topaz and Peridot Trillion Ring Blue Nile

This Blue Nile ring combines amethyst, the February birthstone, and blue topaz, the birthstone for December. © Blue Nile