Do you like to wear your birthstone, or perhaps the birthstones of your children or other family members? Have you ever wondered how these particular gemstones came to be assigned to each month? The history and lore of birthstones is a fascinating topic with cultural and religious origins that may surprise you.
If you’ve ever shopped for jewelry, you’ve probably seen the familiar list of “modern” birthstones most often used in the United States:
January - Garnet
February - Amethyst
March - Aquamarine
April - Diamond
May - Emerald
June - Pearl / Moonstone
July - Ruby
August - Peridot
September - Sapphire
October - Opal / Tourmaline
November - Yellow Topaz / Citrine
December - Blue Topaz / Turquoise / Tanzanite
Now, there are other, similar treatments of gemstones ascribed to different cultures. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine from India, for example, gemstones are associated with the planets in Vedic astrology and used as a sort of prescription for addressing imbalances in the individual’s horoscope. But although I have seen lists of “Ayurvedic birthstones,” it appears that within that tradition, the stones aren’t strictly associated with the months the way we think of birthstones in the West. Similarly, there is a “mystical birthstone” list often seen on the internet, which is attributed to Tibet, but I have yet to find a reliable source explaining its origin.
The list above was standardized in 1912 by the Jewelers of America, a national association of professional jewelers, although tanzanite was added to the month of December by the American Gem Trade Association fairly recently, in 2002. But the original list of stones was somewhat different, and the idea of a special gemstone connected to the month of your birth has roots that go much further back.
In his 1913 book The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, George Frederick Kunz explains that both Josephus (a Jewish writer of the 1st century AD) and St Jerome (a Christian of the 5th century) suggested a correspondence between the twelve months of the year, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and a list of twelve stones given in the Biblical book of Exodus. These twelve stones were said to be set into the breastplate of the High Priest of the Israelites, and engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Neither Josephus nor Jerome went into detail about how these stones were connected to the months; instead, the order in which the stones are assigned comes from another listing of stones in the Bible, namely the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation. Now, these stones were said to be carved with the names of the twelve apostles, and the apostles in turn were associated with the months of the year. These two lists of stones eventually formed the basis for our modern list of birthstones.
What were these lists of stones, and how did they come to be attributed to the months? That will be the subject of Part II of The Biblical Origin of Birthstones, coming soon!
(This essay was originally posted on the Crystal and Mineral Collecting blog of a local “rock shop” called Treasure Mountain Mining. They operate primarily on the internet, but have a wonderful showroom of minerals, in which I have spent way too much time. The bulk of my own collection of crystals and minerals comes from these folks, and they recently asked me to contribute some articles to their blog. I will be posting them here as well, starting with this one, but I invite you to check out the original post as well, which includes some pictures and links to their fantastic specimens of the various birthstone minerals!)