You probably know your birthstone, but do you know why we have them? If your answer is “because someone wants to make us feel sentimental about something in an effort to sell us more stuff,” you’re pretty much right. But there’s also an interesting history of birthstones that helps tell the story of how they came to be part of our cultures.
Where does the history of birthstones begin?
Nowadays there are one to three gemstones for every month/zodiac sign. But a birthstone for each month is a later development. Originally, the idea of 12 gemstones goes back to the story of Aaron, the brother of Moses in the Old Testament.
In the Book of Exodus, Aaron wears a breastplate adorned with 12 stones. Each stone represents one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Aaron was the first high priest of the Israelites to wear it. All those who come after him wore it too since it is said to have special powers to reveal the fate of the tribes. (That’s the short story,
First-century translations of the Old Testament texts reveal that “the first row contained carnelian, chrysolite, and beryl. The second row contained jacinth, agate, and amethyst, and the third row contained topaz, onyx, and jasper.”
According to the International Gem Society (IGS) (cited below):
“The naming of minerals at the time were dependent on color rather than chemical composition, so it is difficult to determine which gems were actually used. For example, chrysolite was used to describe gems with flecks of gold, which could have included topaz or peridot.”
From sacred gemstones to birthstones
In the late 1st century AD, the historian Josephus mentions the breastplate in his 20-volume work on Jewish customs. He also calls attention to its connection to the 12 months of the year and the 12 zodiac signs. He was one of the few Jewish writers that early Christian authors referenced. So it’s no surprise that Josephus’ ideas were picked up by St. Jerome in the 5th century AD. Jerome encouraged the use of the stones to represent months
According to the IGS “This established a tradition that would last for centuries, in which people would collect all of the 12 stones to wear at one time in extravagant belts, bracelets, and other ornaments. By the 8th and 9th centuries, this trend evolved to where people would own a collection of all of the jewels but only wear a single stone during a given month, where it was believed to have heightened powers. This most likely came from eastern traditions believing that birthstones can provide the wearer with protection and powers, as trade between the east and west began to surge during this time period. The modern tradition of wearing one stone for their month of birth did not begin until the 16th century and originated in either Germany or Poland. This was the start of the birthstone trend we are familiar with today.”
Other cultural influences
Eastern cultures also associated gemstones, though it’s more often 9 stones than 12. Still, the idea of associating stones with astrological signs would have resonated around the world early on.
That made it much easier for someone (the gemstone industry) to eventually capitalize on it further.
In 1912, the National Association of Jewelers decided to standardize the list of American birthstones and the months they represented. This allowed them to promote the purchase of specific stones in large quantities at different times of the year.
In 1952, the list was modified as stones were harder to come by and became too expensive.
Now, you’ll see up to three stones associated with any single month or zodiac sign. This has a lot to do with what sorts of stones the industry is capable of selling. — WTF fun facts
Source: “History of Birthstones” — International Gem Society