What Is The Significance Of Birthstones?

By Antonia Čirjak on January 23 2020 in Did You Know

Precious gemstones on a wooden board.
Precious gemstones on a wooden board.

Although birthstones are undoubtedly a superstition, their development is an interesting part of the history of Western mysticism and symbolism (assigning special meaning to flowers, colors, stones, animal images, etc.). The latest iteration of the Birthstone list is also noted as a brilliant marketing move described in many business manuals. 

Pragmatically, the Birthstone list can be a useful and fun aid in buying gifts with an added “secret” message if you wish to make a heartfelt confession in both subtle and memorable manner. For example, a diamond is supposed to say: “my loyalty to you is unbreakable.”

The Early History: The Divination And The Gems

Birthstones are specific stones (mainly precious gems) associated with the month of birth, similar to the horoscope signs, according to traditions in some countries, primarily the US. While the meaning and significance of each stone have evolved, the general association is with wishing good fortune and prosperity. 

Precious gems.
Precious gems.

The twelve stones in the armor Breastplate of Aaron (brother of Moses) described in Exodus and mentioned in the Bible and Torah is a sacred object worn by the High Priest of the Israelites to conduct divination (communication with God). In the Hebrew tradition, the twelve stones were meant to represent twelve tribes of Israel. The breastplate was described as an armor of righteousness or judgment alternatively. In order to represent God’s will, the plate contained the “Urim” and “Thummim” stones. Their nature is unclear, but they could render either favorable and unfavorable judgment from God. Some also theorize that they represented “innocence” and “guilt.” The breastplate itself was generally described as a linen garment that had four rows of three stones each. 

What Were The Twelve Biblical Gemstones?

The first notable researcher of the mysterious Breastplate was Roman scholar Titus Flavius Josephus in the 1st century. He attempted to compile the first list of the gemstones in the plate:

“It is to be square – a span long and a span wide – and folded double. Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be Carnelian, Chrysolite, and Beryl; the second row shall be Turquoise, Lapis Lazuli, and Emerald; the third row shall be Jacinth, Agate, and Amethyst; the fourth row shall be Topaz, Onyx, and Jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings. There are to be twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes.” Exodus 28:16-20

In the 5th century, Biblical scholars interested in mysticism noticed a repeated significance of the number twelve and attempted to establish a connection between the twelve breastplate gems, the twelve months of the Roman calendar, the twelve gemstones mentioned in the Book of Revelation, etc. They suggested that each gem was connected to a certain month or astrological alignment. 

The 12 Zodiac Constellations.
The 12 Zodiac Constellations.

Later Classifications And Theories

Because there was no precise classification of the stones almost until the 17th century their names were often based on their appearance. The same name could mean many different stones that just happened to have the same color. For instance, “Chrysolite” was any green gem, which could have been Peridot, Topaz, or Tourmaline; “carbuncle” refers to all red gems or garnets in particular, yet in some instances, it seems to refer to coal or charcoal. Some gemstones’ names became associated with entirely different gemstones. The stone known as “Sapphire” in the original Hebrew was described as “blue with gold specks”. Now, we call that gem Lapis Lazuli, and “Sapphire” is the name of the blue variety of Corundum. 

That is why the gemstones from the Bible are so challenging to identify. On top of it, the list of gemstones in the Breastplate varies in every version of Exodus. Up to this day, there is no consensus on what the Breastplate stones were. Still, the most comprehensive work suggests the following: Carnelian, Peridot, Emerald, Garnet, Lapis Lazuli, clear Quartz, Yellow Zircon, Banded Agate, Amethyst, Citrine, Onyx, and Green Jasper.

The Twelve Stones For The Twelve Months

Over time, a theory appeared that each stone has extraordinary power during the month it “governs” and that people had to wear this specific stone only during that period of the year to benefit from it. Having twelve sets of jewelry could hardly be feasible; maybe this was the reason that by the 17th century, the myth transformed into wearing a stone associated with one’s birth month the entire year instead. 

Uncut tanzanite crystals.
Uncut tanzanite crystals.

Back then, there were multiple lists of birthstones, and different countries had different ones. To clarify the confusion, in 1912, the American National Jewelers’ Association created and published a new list: a brilliant marketing move that established loyal audiences for most valuable traded gems. As new stones were discovered, the list was updated to include Tanzanite in 2002, and Spinel in 2016. 

The Birthstone Tradition Is Not Universal

Many other countries have no Birthstone tradition at all or utilize a different approach. Not all countries share the tradition in the list; for example, while Zodiac is well known in Russia, the Birthstone tradition is not. In Russia however, the association with the “lucky” stones does not come from a sacred text, but rather from numerology. All numbers in the date of birth are summed up and then summed up again to find a number in the range from 1 to 9. For example, 01.02.1985 results in number 8. Another approach comes from the Eastern tradition of the stone’s association with the sign of the Zodiac (month of the birth’s sign). 

What Is My Birthstone?

Nevertheless, every birth gem is shrouded in entertaining ancient myths and folklore. Here is the list as it appeared in the “official” list in 1912, with the few additions: 

  • January: Garnet
  • February: Amethyst
  • March: Aquamarine 
  • April: Clear Quartz or Diamond
  • May: Emerald
  • June: Pearl or Alexandrite
  • July: Ruby
  • August: Peridot or Spinel
  • September: Sapphire or Lapis Lazuli
  • October: Tourmaline or Opal
  • November: Citrine or Topaz
  • December: Turquoise or Tanzanite

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