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Birthstones: History and Evolution from Biblical Times to Present

Birthstones make great jewelry gifts for Mother’s Day, birthdays, graduation, or in my case, a push present. Have you ever wondered, “Where did the idea of birthstones come from? What’s the history of birthstones?” We’ll discuss these topics and more.

birthstones

The association of gemstones with months may have first been observed by Flavius Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, in Antiquities of the Jews:

Moreoever, the vestments of the high-priest being made of linen signifies the earth, the blue denotes the sky, being like lightning in its pomegranates, and resembling thunder in the noise of the bells…And for the twelve stones, whether we understand by them the months, or the twelve signs of what the Greeks call the zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning.”

Josephus may have described the twelve stones on the breast piece worn by the priests; the requirements are noted in Exodus 28:15-21 NIV.

Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of skilled hands…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.”

What does this have to do with birthstones? And do the 12 tribes of Israel translate to 12 months or the Greek zodiac signs? One thing for certain, “12” carries great significance to the Jewish people. 12 is considered a perfect number and represents God’s power and authority. 12 also represents completion.

Some changes may have occurred between the building of the First and Second Temple, but the presence of the stones still come into play in the New Testament. 12 Foundation Stones line the walls of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. These represented the twelve apostles.

Early Christians kept the twelve stones and made it practice to wear one each month, George Kuntz, an American mineralogist, claims “The order in which the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem are given in the book of Revelation determined the succession of the natal stones for the months. The first stone was assigned to St. Peter and to the month of March, to the leader of the apostles, and to the month of the spring equinox.”

The bloodstone, the birthstone for March, carries great symbolic meaning. According to Mornay of Anglesey, “Bloodstone for March is not surprising for…it owes its fame to the tradition that it was under the cross upon which Christ was crucified. The red spots on it were supposedly the droplets of His blood.”

The custom of wearing a stone based on one’s birth month may have originated in Poland in the 18th century, but the current listing of birthstones came from the Conference of National Association of Jewelers in 1912. As Mornay of Anglesey notes, the bloodstone is not a pretty stone, and infers Aquamarine was taken from its former position in October and placed as an alternative for March based on its marketability. “They dropped agate from its June position and adopted two more gems, one of which is not, technically speaking, a stone!” This, of course, is the pearl.

The Jewelry Industry Council of America updated the list in 1952 to include Alexandrite (a stone rarer than a diamond…and more expensive) for June as well, bringing the total to three choices for one month. Wikipedia shares the historical variations. “In 2016, the American Gem Trade Association and Jewelers of America added spinel as an additional birthstone for August.”

And this is why birthstones make such great gifts…

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