gemstones have been valued throughout recorded history for their
beauty and rarity, they have also become associated with objects
and events. There are gemstones associated with each of the nine
planets. There are gemstones associated with astrological signs,
days of the week, and wedding anniversaries. However, the most
well known association with gemstones is the birthstone.
The idea of a stone associated with the twelve months
began to evolve long ago – with the breastplate of Aaron.
Prior to 1300 B.C., gemstone legend and lore focused on
mystical properties associated with gems. Gems were worn to
bestow those properties upon the wearer. Thus, a person
plagued by nightmares might choose to wear peridot as
protection against them and a woman hoping to have a child
might wear emerald for fertility. Other legends grew to
explain the origins of the gem. For example, amethyst was
said to have been created by the Greek god of wine, Bacchus.
This happened with a beautiful young woman cried out to the
goddess Diana for protection against the murderous wrath of
Bacchus. Diana changed the woman into a beautiful clear
crystal. Bacchus then poured his wine onto the crystal,
changing it to purple. Because of Bacchus’ hand in the
creation of amethyst, it was used as a protection against
According to Biblical scripture, the
priest Aaron was to wear a breastplate adorned with twelve
gems, chosen by God to represent the twelve tribes of
Israel. There has been some debate about which gems actually
appeared in the breastplate. This is because people did not
always classify gemstones by mineral composition. In fact,
the most frequent ancient method of classifying gems was by
color, leading to confusion between such gems as garnet and
The idea of having gemstones represent
specific desirable traits found in the twelve tribes of
Israel led to the association between gemstones and signs of
The gems chosen have changed many times
through the centuries. For example, the Ancient Babylonians
associated diamond with the astrological sign Libra.
However, to the Greeks, diamond was associated with Cancer
and, to the Byzantines, diamond was linked to Aries. The
jump from stones associated with astrological signs to being
associated to specific months came with the spread of
Since the church desired to downplay the
use of astrology, gemstone lore became associated with the
twelve apostles. Then came a belief that people born in a
certain month were assigned a specific guardian angel.
Certain gems became associated with each angel, and thus the
birthstone concept was born.
Originally, wealthy Europeans owned one
of each “birthstone,” and changed which birthstone they wore
each month in order to be in harmony with the celestial
spirits. As the months changed, the wearer hoped the stone
would bring the special properties during that month. Each
stone had certain traits and protections ascribed to it by
legend. Garnet would bring the wearer tranquility and
protect against fevers and against harm during travel. Ruby
would bring the clarity of mind and protect against harm
from natural causes.
It was not until the 18th century that the idea of
gemstones as birth amulets became popular. The logic behind
the change is obvious; ownership of large numbers of
gemstones was not a practice that could be embraced by most
people, and eventually it became the fashion to wear only
the stone associated with one’s birth month. One legend even
suggested that it is unlucky for anyone who is not born in
October to wear opal, but for those born in its month, opal
would bring joy and contentment and protect against diseases
of the eye.
The stones associated with each month
have changed frequently. One reason is that identification
of gemstones has been haphazard and often based on color,
not composition of the stone. Also, birthstones have varied
from country to country. And as people became more
interested in wearing birthstones, less expensive stones
have been substituted for some of the most rare gems.
Finally in 1912, the National Association of Jewelers
assigned the standard birthstones we recognize today.
However, even in this list there were choices. A person born
in March could choose between aquamarine and bloodstone,
while someone born in June has the most choices with pearl,
alexandrite and moonstone being equally acceptable.
Since the choice of “official”
birthstones has been rather arbitrary, individuals could
choose instead to wear “signature” stones based upon
different standards. For example, a person who values
courage might choose diamond as his signature stone since
diamonds are said to ensure bravery for the wearer. (Diamond
is also a symbol of fidelity in love, which is why they have
become the special stone for engagement rings.) A different
person might choose to wear the gem associated with their
“guardian angel.” For example, a woman born in January is
said to be looked after by the angel Gabriel, whose stone is
onyx. Someone with a special affection for astrology might
chose to wear the stone associate with her star sign. For
example, a Libra may choose to wear peridot. There are also
stones associate with seasons and days of the week.
With the huge number of “correct” choices
available to each person, the wearing of a birthstone can be
individual and distinctive. Whatever stone is chosen, one
thing is certain, the stone has a rich mythic tradition that
can add depth and interest to your choice.