WHAT’S IN A STONE? – THE HISTORY OF THE BIRTHSTONE
Have you ever wondered why your birth month is associated with a particular gemstone? The author of this article has before, but never came to reach a satisfactory answer. However, after some research, analysis, and deep digging in the annals of history, the secrets of your birthstone will be divulged in this article. Passages will be summary, but you will come out knowing more than you did before and you can brag to your friends.
WHERE THE BIRTHSTONE STARTED
The concept of the birthstone is either Jewish, Christian, or pagan in origin, depending on your interpretation. Regardless of which group started it, the religious roots of the birthstone are tied to the breastplate of the Jewish high-priest.
This gives the Jews a strong claim to being the originators of the birthstone. If Frederick Kunz is right, then it may have been Jewish Poles in the eighteenth century who started the trend. After all, high priests wore replica breastplates and there was a heavy concentration of Jewish Diaspora in Poland at the time. According to Kunz, it was the Jews who interpreted each stone to have its own month; in essence, it was part of their religious tradition. However, Kunz never gives strong enough as to why this might be the case. Fortunately, almost a hundred years later, Lance Grande and Allison Augustyn in their history of gemstones, offer a little more substance. They claim that the migration of Polish Jews to America really kick started the idea of the birthstone. What followed was industry standardization and Jewish culture spreading globally.
St. Jerome borrowed from Josephus’s writing about the breastplate and laid down the foundation for birthstones. Revelations had the twelve foundation stones (Rev 21:19). While the stones in Revelations are derived from the Old Testament, their material and order differ substantially. Furthermore, magical properties associated with the stones, while pagan, were ignored. Surely not every person truly thought these stones had special powers, but it must be noted. Theologians and priests instead associated the stones with spiritual, even holy symbols. For instance, jasper was associated with St. Peter. Some did not believe in associating stones with the apostles, however, and instead chose virtues or Christ himself.
But for birthstones, where Jewish influences ends and Christian influences begin, and where paganism fits in, is a murky history indeed.
THE MODERN LIST
In 1912, the National Association of Jewelers met in Kansas City to lay out the official birthstones of each month. Today, the list has remained largely unchanged. Their list was as follows:
January – Garnet
February – Amethyst
March – Bloodstone, Aquamarine
April – Diamond
May – Emerald
June – Pearl, Moonstone
July – Ruby
August – Sardonyx, Peridot
September – Sapphire
October – Opal, Tourmaline
November – Topaz
December – Turquoise, Lapis lazuli
Tiffany and Company in 1870 published a poem with a list of birthstones that was nearly identical to the standardized list in 1912. The key differences are agate for June and only one stone per month (Bloodstone for March, Sardonyx for August, Opal for October, and Turquoise for December).
Today, the GIA list is mostly the same as the one in 1912. The GIA added Alexandrite to June, August swapped Sardonyx for Spinel, November gained Citrine, and December swapped out Lapis for Zircon and gained Tanzanite.
WHY THE CHANGES?
At a glance, these changes seem meaningless. Indeed, they may even appear quite random. But before getting into details, there are a few things to note. First, tanzanite is a recent discovery. Since birthstones today are by large a commercial affair and not a religious or spiritual one, the inclusion can be interpreted as simply business. However, Alexandrite, a stone discovered in 1830, did not appear in Tiffany & Company’s 1870 poem that outlined birthstones.
Further evidence of a commercial, as opposed to spiritual or cultural, decision to make tanzanite a birthstone is because of Tiffany. In the early 2000s, not long after discovery of Tanzanite, some serious allegations regarding Tiffany’s ethics and business practices arose.
Following 9/11, rumors that al-Qaeda funded its attacks by selling tanzanite spread like wildfire. A Wall Street Journal publication just a couple months after 9/11 only made the rumors more viral. The rumors had little to no credibility and the US and Tanzanian governments reassured buyers that tanzanite was not a conflict resource. But there were ethical issues besides al-Qaeda.
The destitute town of Mererani boomed due to its close proximity to the tanzanite mines. But with the boom came a deluge of debauchery and crime. As celebrities stood before camera flashes on the red carpet, miners drowned in flash-floods and blood. Battles between miners and company officials broke out frequently.
After an investigation absolved Tiffany of any guilt in 2002, they sold tanzanite again. Later that year, it was announced that the stone would be added to the list of birthstones.
Prices during the investigation dropped during 2001. While the al-Qaeda rumors hurt the price of tanzanite, there was also a brief, minor recession in the early 2000s that affected its price. But by 2003, the popularity and demand for tanzanite rebounded in full strength. People couldn’t get enough of the stone.
We may never know the true reasons for designating some stones as birth stones.
BIRTHSTONES IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT
While birthstones today and historically were predominately a Jewish or European phenomenon, other cultures have similar concepts.
For instance, there is the navaratna, or “nine stones” where each stone represents a planet in Buddhism and Hinduism. Although navaratna has little to do with birth innately, it is a similar concept for a two major reasons.
One, the stones are prescribed; the rules say what they are and this does not change (birthstones didn’t change for a long times until commercialization). The navaratna have not changed since ancient times. And two, each stone represents an entity. In medieval times, the birthstones represented not only months, but the Apostles and/or Christian virtues. In ancient times, they represented the 12 tribes of Israel. The navaratna represent celestial entities: the Sun is the Ruby, the Moon is the pearl, Mercury is emerald, Mars is Coral, Jupiter is either yellow sapphire or topaz, Venus is a diamond, and Saturn is blue sapphire. The last two stones are not bodies themselves, but lunar nodes. The ascending node is zircon and the descending node is cat’s eye.
In the Americas, there does not seem to be a comparable system present among indigenous peoples. However, research of birthstones is also lacking. If there is a genuine “Native American birthstone” belief, then it is not known to the author. It must be noted that Native Americans held gemstones, like turquoise (which was especially praised), in high regard. But the honoring of turquoise is not related to birth.
Thus it can be concluded that birthstones are first and foremost, a European phenomenon with strong Jewish roots.
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Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala. “Tanzanite: Commodity Fiction or Commodity Nightmare?” Between the Plough and the Pick Informal, Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining in the Contemporary World, edited by Katherine C. Donahue, Australia, ANU, 2018, pp. 63–88.
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