What's your birthstone? Just about everyone knows the birthstone for the month they were born. Who began the tradition of birthstones anyway? It may have become popular in the Middle Ages, at that time astrology was all the rage, but it probably goes back much further. A look at George Kunz's book The Curious Lore of Precious Stones contains much more information than this short article.
According to Kunz; the Bible, the book of Revelations and possibly the book of Exodus may give us a clue to where it began. The Talmud of Jewish tradition also mentions the use of precious stone as talismans. The Jewish historian Josephus writing around 200 AD, noted a connection between the months of the year and the breastplate of the high priest in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The breastplate contained 12 different stones.
This information is somewhat obscure. The first temple was built by Solomon and then destroyed. It was later rebuilt on the same site. The second temple was destroyed by the Romans about the time of Christ. The last remnant is the wailing wall in Jerusalem. The contents of the temple including the breastplate were lost.
All these sources mention wearing or keeping precious stones to influence unseen forces. However, the practice of wearing birthstone was not common until the 1500s in northern Europe, mostly Germany and Poland when astrology gained it greatest popularity. Astrologers were considered scientist at that time and everyone wanted a horoscope. It was considered a real necessity. Although astrology had external trappings of magic the information was based on biblical philosophy.
In the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance in Europe almost all higher learning was based on religion. Most learning and "scientific research" took place in monasteries and the few universities that then existed. The Old Testament was considered the source of all learning and commentaries were written on just about every phrase or sentence it contained. This was the basis of a liberal arts education and covered natural philosophy (science), rhetoric (speech and debate), music, literature, art, and other subjects. Religion was so intertwined in the day to day existence. it should be considered an integral part of the current culture. It was not until the protestant reformation of Martin Luther begun in 1517 that alternative world views could be examined without ridicule. Astrology could be explored beyond church sanctions. These lists are the result.
Each month has special stones and so do the four seasons. There are stones for days of the week and hours of the day. Each of the twelve apostles has a special stone and so do the angels who guard the gates of heaven. Each zodiac sign has its own stone as well.
Here are the tables for each:
Months of the Year
Aquamarine or Bloodstone
Pearl, Moonstone or Alexandrite
Peridot or Sardonyx
Opal or Pink Tourmaline
Topaz or Citrine
Turquoise or Blue Zircon
Days of the Week
Topaz or Sunstone
Rock Crystal, Pearl or Moonstone
Ruby, Emerald or Star Sapphire
Amethyst, Lodestone or Star Ruby
Sapphire, Carnelian or Cat's Eye
Emerald, Cat's Eye or Alexandrite
Turquoise, Diamond or Labradorite
Hours of the Day
St. James and John
Note: James and John share a stone while Matthew has two stones
Guardians of the Gates of Paradise
Zodiac or Sun Signs
These are very old lists, and some of the names of stones are no longer used or refer to stones whose names have changed over time. Prior to 19th century, there was no way to confirm the crystalline structure or chemical composition of gemstones and many names were used interchangeably.
Beryl - This is the modern form of the Greek word ‘beryllos’. In the distant past it referred to any green stone and included emerald or aquamarine. The modern term 'Beryl' refers to any stone with the chemical composition (Be3Al2Si6O18). These include emerald (a green stone), aquamarine (a pale blue stone), morganite (a purplish-red stone), heliodor ( a yellowish brown stone), and 2 unnamed varieties deep blue and violet-red.
Carbuncle - Derives from the Latin ‘Carbunculus’ and means little coal or small spark. In ancient times it referred to any red stone with a smooth rounded top (cabochon), usually a garnet. The term carbuncle is no longer used by modern gemologists
Chalcedony - It refers to Cryptocrystalline Quartz (SiO2). This means that even under very high magnification the crystalline structure cannot be seen because it is so small. One early source of this stone was the seaport town of Chalcedon in modern Turkey near Constantinople, hence the name. The Greek form of this word is ‘chalkedon’ and the Latin form is ‘chalcedonium’. Chalcedony is the modern technical term for most agates, jaspers, onyx and other cryptocrystalline stones.
Chrysolite - Chrysos refers to a yellow color and chrysolite means any yellowish green stone. It is often confused with chrysoberyl. This term is sometimes used to describe Peridot and is generally considered an antique term rather than a technical term.
Chrysoberyl - This is a specific chemical crystal structure (BeAl2O4) that includes Alexandrite and Cat'sEye. The term ‘chrysos’ is Greek and means golden and 'beryllos' means a gem. In former times meant any yellowish gem.
Chrysoprase - This is a variety of chalcedony. The name 'chrysos' derives from Greek meaning yellow or golden. ‘Prase’ is the modern term for the Greek term ‘prasios’ meaning leek green. It is another term for yellowish green stones.
Jacinth - Is the antique term and is interchangeable with Hyacinth and Chrysolite. It is used to describe any yellow-green stone. The modern usage of the term Hyacinth refers to a yellow variety of sapphire.
Kunzite - A light purple stone only recently described in technical terms and named for G. F. Kunz, an American mineralogist and gemologist. It is a form of spodumene. The first description of spodumene referred to the non-gem variety. ‘Spodmenos’ is a Greek word that means burnt to ashes in reference to those ashy crude crystals. The gem variety is a pretty pale purple stone.
Labradorite - First found by Moravian missionaries in Labrador, Canada in the 1700's. It was called by the missionaries labrador spar or labrador stone. This is a form of feldspar. ‘Feld’ is a German word meaning field, while ‘spar’ is Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘easily cleavable mineral’. This refers to the fact that is cleaves or breaks clearly along the planes of the crystal.
Lodestone or Loadstone - Antique names for magnetite, a magnetic stone.
Sardonyx - This is another chalcedony and shows pronounced banding or layers, usually brown with black or white. The term ‘sard’ is a reference to Sardis the capital of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) an early source for this stone.
The Curious Lore of Precious Stones by George Frederick Kunz Handbook of Gem Identification by Richard T. Liddicoat, Jr. Planet Earth; Gemstones by Paul O’Neil
Class notes from Gemology 101 & 102 by Beverly Fernandes
About the Author
Beverly Fernandes has been beading since 1969. Since moving to Eugene in 1998 Bev has worked primarily with beads, her first loves have always been her husband John and beadwork. Bev works primarily with Japanese Cylinder Beads known as Delicas. They come in over 600 colors and textures, so Bev can practically paint with beads. Most pieces are worked in peyote or gourd stitch, a form of bead weaving that has been found in Egyptian tombs and has since been practiced by nearly every culture that has worked with beads. Beverly has a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology. She studies archaeology and bead history.
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