Traditional vs. Modern Birthstones
Gemstones have such unique and interesting histories individually that it’s no surprise birthstones also have an interesting backstory. So where does the idea come from? Birthstones are believed to have a religious origin tracing back to Moses who directed 12 gems to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. They began to gain popularity in the 5th century though when Christians wore ornaments containing the 12 gemstones. The idea of wearing single gemstones was likely introduced by the Hindus who associated powers with certain gemstones and would wear one at a time to heighten their energy. It wasn’t until the 16th century though that people began wearing one stone for their month of birth.
So where does the modern birthstone come from? Well, Jewelers of America decided to standardize birthstones in 1912 and have since added to that standardized list. The UK created their own standardized list in 1937 but I’ll be referencing the American list.
All traditional birthstones are included in the modern birthstone list so you probably know a majority already but you may be unaware of the modern list of birthstones.
Garnet is Januarys birthstone on both the traditional and modern lists. With a long history dating back to the Egyptians they’ve been a popular gemstone for a long time. Garnets can be orange or green as well though red is most common.
February’s birthstone amethyst used to be rare before deposits in Brazil were found. The first known piece of amethyst jewelry is dated at 2000 BC. Greeks and Romans used amethyst to ward off drunkenness while it was later used to represent royalty. Today it’s the worlds most popular purple gemstone.
March birthdays get to enjoy the blue-green hued gemstone. Aquamarine has always been associated with water in some way and is believed to have been used by the apostle St. Thomas who was often at sea. However, the first documented use of aquamarine was by the Greeks sometime after 300 BC.
March’s modern list includes bloodstone, a dark green gem with red and brown spots. Believed to help blood related ailments (like anemia), it was used decoratively as long as 2000 years ago.
Diamonds are April’s birthstone on both lists. Recognized as a precious gemstone by the Romans in the first century, we know they began being traded along the Silk Road from India in the fourth century. Still popular today, we have a better understanding now how diamond mining negatively impacts the environment. If you’re purchasing a naturally mined diamond, always ensure its conflict free. Conflict free diamonds are ethical; their profits don’t finance wars, their working conditions are safe and their wages are living wages.
Like the majority of months, May only has one birthstone and that’s emerald. Estimated to be 2.97 billion years old, emeralds have been enjoyed for an incredibly long time most notably by Cleopatra. Legend says that God gifted King Solomon an emerald so that he could have power over all creation. Emeralds have many interesting historical stories associated with it if you enjoy rabbit holes as much as I do.
June’s traditional birthstone are pearls. Grown in oysters, mussels, and other mollusk’s natural pearls are truly individual. The history of early pearls is associated with royalty as they were gifted to Chinese royalty in 2300 BC and Julius Caesar actually only allowed ruling classes to wear them. Today, saltwater pearls found in oysters are rare and incredibly expensive compared to their freshwater counterparts.
Alexandrite is one of the few gemstones who appear to be more than one color. Considered June’s modern birthstone, Alexandrite is uncommon and quite expensive. It can appear shades of red or green depending on the light. Unlike other gems, Alexandrite is more newly discovered having been found in the 1800s in Russia.
Only June and December have more than two birthstones when considering traditional or modern lists. Moonstones used in adornments can be traced back to ancient civilizations including the Romans in 100 AD. Its unique adularescence had Hindus believing it was made of moonbeams. Moonstone’s popularity is definitely making a comeback in recent years.
July’s birthstone is the ruby found in 2500 BC in modern day Burma. Hence, Burma rubies tend to be the more popular variety and what people think of when they think about rubies. With a long history and many associated legends, rubies have always been admired. It’s no surprise that rubies were long associated with royalty and wealth though it’s also believed warriors used them for protection.
August celebrates their birth month with peridot. The uniqueness of peridot is that it’s actually formed in magma and brought to Earth’s surface by volcanos. Peridot was believed to have been discovered around 1500 BC by the Egyptians.
August’s modern birthstone is spinel, which naturally comes in a variety of colors. Spinels in their natural form are rare and not often found in large carats so most spinels are lab grown. Spinels were first mined some time between 750 and 950 AD and documented by none other than Marco Polo. While spinel has been traced to roughly 100 BC, it’s hard to know for sure since spinel was mistaken for rubies and sapphires in ancient cultures.
Sapphires are Septembers birthstone for both traditional and modern lists. Like many other gemstones, sapphires come in multiple colors such as yellow, orange and pink to name a few. Red sapphires are in fact rubies, surprised? Rubies and sapphires are the same mineral but classified differently based of their color. It’s the blue sapphire that represents September’s stone. It’s one of the worlds most durable naturally occurring gemstone and dates back to the Etruscans in 7th century BC.
Most of the natural opals in circulation today are Australian opals. Since discovering deposits in Ethiopia, Ethiopian opals are becoming popular. The irony being that opals are dated back to 4000 BC from Ethiopia. Opals weren’t recorded as adornments though until the ancient Romans around 200 BC. The traditional birthstone of October, there’s many opal options to choose from today.
October’s modern birthstone tourmaline comes in multiple colors with clear and vivid green, blue, and res bring desirable. Tourmaline is a fairly new gem though since it wasn’t found until the late 1600s. Alchemists actually believed that it was related to the philosophers stone. Despite its short history, tourmaline is a popular gemstone today.
Citrine seems totally appropriate as Novembers birthstone. The yellow-orange color of citrine is definitely in fall’s color palette. Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used citrine to adorn weapons and jewelry. Citrine occurs naturally though it’s incredibly rare. Most citrine today is quartz since it can be created by heating amethyst or smoky quartz.
November is fortunate to have topaz as its modern birthstone since topaz comes in so many colors. Yellow or orange topaz is commonly seen for November (probably because of citrines color) but topaz also comes in blue, colorless (most commonly occuring), pink, violet and brown. Topaz has a long history tracing back to the Ancient Egyptians though it’s likely topaz existed and was used in prehistoric times.
December is the most versatile birthstone month without a doubt. While blue zircon is considered its traditional birthstone, many gems have since been added. Zircon is not to be confused with cubic zirconia (CZ) as cubic zirconia is man made and zircon is mined. Zircon is actually the oldest mineral on earth and dates back 4.4 billion years. Blue zircon is more rare than diamonds despite its lower price tag.
Blue topaz is commonly used today as a modern birthstone but was only added to the modern list in 2002. Found by the Romans, it was originally worn for protection. While natural blue topaz is rare, blue topaz can be created by irradiating colorless topaz.
Turquoise is another modern birthstone for December. Ancient Egyptians used turquoise in adornments dating it back to 3000 BC (that we know of). There are many fake turquoise on the market today as howlite is often dyed to appear like turquoise. Natural turquoise is becoming more rare and more valuable so hold on to your turquoise!
Tanzanite is Decembers other modern birthstone; they really have a lot don't they? Tanzanite is a unique gemstone and was stumbled upon in the 1960s. It was uniquely formed over 500 million years ago making it a one in a million chance to find another deposit. That being said with how small the current deposit is, tanzanite will likely be exhausted in the next 25 years.
Most of us follow the traditional gemstones when we think of purchasing birthstone jewelry for others or ourselves. For many months though, there are other options adding more available colors for the month as well adding some potentially unique gemstones to your collection.