What Is a Birthstone?
A birthstone is a gem which is a symbol of the month of a person’s birth. Birthstones are and can be worn as jewelry and pendants. Long ago, people believed that precious stones had magical powers, and that certain gems could even protect them from harm or bring good fortune.
The idea of birthstones came from these old beliefs. Each month was given a stone. Wearing this stone, people thought, would bring good fortune to anyone whose birthday was in the month. Most people today do not believe that birthstones affect the wearer’s life. But many people still enjoy wearing their birthstones.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus believed there was a connection between the twelve stones in Aaron’s breastplate, the twelve months of the year, and the twelve signs of the zodiac. Translations and interpretations of the passage in Exodus regarding the breastplate have varied widely, however, with Josephus himself giving two different lists for the twelve stones (Kunz argues that Josephus saw the breastplate of the Second Temple, not the one described in Exodus).
St. Jerome, referencing Josephus, said the Foundation Stones of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:19–20) would be appropriate for Christians to use. In the eighth and ninth century, religious treaties associating a particular stone with an apostle were written because the book of Revelation stated “their name would be inscribed on the Foundation Stones, and his virtue”.
Practice became to keep twelve stones and wear one a month. Wearing a single birthstone is only a few centuries old, although modern authorities differ on dates Kunz places the custom in eighteenth century Poland, while the Gemological Institute of America starts it in Germany in the 1560s.
Modern lists of birthstones have little to do with either the breastplate or the Foundation Stones of Christianity. Tastes, customs and confusing translations have distanced them from their historical origins, with one author calling the 1912 Kansas list “nothing but a piece of unfounded salesmanship.”
In 1912, in an effort to standardize birthstones, the (American) National Association of Jewelers (now called Jewelers of America) met in Kansas and officially adopted a list. The Jewelry Industry Council of America updated the list in 1952 by adding alexandrite to June and citrine to November; specifying pink tourmaline for October; replacing December’s lapis with zircon; and switching the primary/alternative gems in March.
The American Gem Trade Association added tanzanite as a December birthstone in 2002. In 2016, the American Gem Trade Association and Jewelers of America added spinel as an additional birthstone for August. Britain’s National Association of Goldsmiths created their own standardized list of birthstones in 1937.