Posted on January 16, 2015 by Mary Hood | 1 Comment
Birthstones have a complex and interesting history.
According to 20th-century mineralogist George F. Kunz, the tradition of birthstones may be traced back to the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible. The book of Exodus introduces us to the Breastplate of Aaron (also known as the “breastplate of judgment”)—an ornate piece featuring gold, blue, scarlet, and purple material, fine twisted linen, and four rows of stones meant to represent the twelve tribes of Israel:
“The first row was a row of ruby, topaz, and emerald; and the second row, a turquoise, a sapphire and a diamond; and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They were set in gold filigree settings when they were mounted. The stones were corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they were twelve, corresponding to their names, engraved with the engravings of a signet, each with its name for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 39:10-14, New American Standard Bible)
Since translations of the Bible vary among translators, there were (and possibly still are) some disagreements about the contemporary names assigned to each stone listed in the above passage. Therefore, there were likely different lists of the twelve stones circulating during various points in history.
A replica of Aaron's Breastplate featuring four rows of colorful stones corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.
The twelve stones are also believed to correspond with the twelve months of the year and the twelve signs of the zodiac. Although scholars debate the extent to which the twelve tribes and their stones were oringially linked to the zodiac, many have offered that people would wear a certain stone during its corresponding month as a talisman. For example, the healing powers of February's stone would be most powerful during February, so that stone should be worn during February, even if the wearer wasn't born during that month.
If this version of the birthstone tradition were still practiced, we’d each possess a set of twelve stones to wear during their respective months rather than one stone representing our birth month. The latter tradition didn’t appear until the 18th century, according to Kunz. The idea of wearing the stone of your birth month (at any time of year) was popularized by Jewish gem traders in Poland.
In 1912, the (American) National Association of Jewelers created a standardized list of birthstones, which, barring a few additions and clarifications, matches the list we use today.
The following handy birthstone chart was created by the American Gem Society:
How do you wear your birthstone?
Photos: Lavish Lockets via Flickr, Wikipedia, Barbara Michelle Jacobs Jewelry, American Gem Society