Birthstones: The Origins
Birthstones are often the perfect gift for someone we cherish, a loving family member or a close friend, they are precious, personal and hold astrological and mythical meanings; each one is believed to own hold unique healing powers. You may know someone who owns a birthstone, perhaps you have one safely stored in your dresser, you may even be wearing one right now, but have you ever wondered where birthstones originated from?
Firstly, what are birthstones?
Birthstones are gemstones that are usually held in the form of jewelry, such as rings, necklaces or pendants. They are precious or semi precious, with each birthstone representing a month, date, day of the week or zodiac sign, all depending on which birthstone chart or list you choose to consult (and there are a few!). Most commonly in the Western world a birthstone represents a month of the Gregorian calendar.
What's the difference between a mineral and a gemstone?
With the exception of a few organic gems, such as pearl, amber and coral, the majority of birthstones are minerals and it's interesting to see which minerals are classed as gems and which are not. Minerals need to have four basic properties; they must be natural (not man-made), they must be solid (they don't melt or evaporate), they must be inorganic (as opposed to being carbon-based living things), and they must be crystalline (having a distinct arrangement of atoms).
Now what makes a mineral a gem is far less to do with geology and more dependent on human belief and perception. Gems are basically materials that are considered precious and valuable because of their appearance, rarity, durability or due to certain cultural beliefs. Obviously, this can vary according to location, historical period and culture.
The Western Birthstone Chart
The traditional astrological concept of birthstone gems is one that dates back to the Bible, and in particular the Breastplate of Aaron. Aaron, often known as "Aaron the Priest", was the brother of Moses, a prophet and the first High Priest of the Israelites.
Aaron's ceremonial breastplate is said to be the origin of birthstones; the plate held four rows of three precious stones, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel.
"There were twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes." (Exodus 28:17-20).
The breastplate itself was said to be square, spanning 22 cm in length and width, and the 12 stones were mounted on a gold base, but the ordering and naming of the gems has always been under much debate and varies from translation to translation. This is also partly due to the fact that gemstones at the time didn't have specific names; they were usually named by their city or country of origin.
The most common naming of the breastplate stones is as follows; the first row of stones from left to right were ruby, topaz and beryl; the second row consisted of turquoise, sapphire, and emerald; the third row was made up of jacinth, agate and amethyst stone; and in the fourth row were chrysolite, onyx and jasper.
If we look at the New American Standard Bible reading of the breastplate we get a list that differs in places. It describes the layout of the gemstones as follows: (Row 1) ruby, topaz, emerald; (Row 2) turquoise, sapphire, diamond; (Row 3) jacinth, agate, amethyst; (Row 4) beryl, onyx, jasper.
The Modern Birthstone List was created by the American National Association of Jewelers, Jewelers of America and was officially taken up in 1912. Despite its controversy and being criticized by purists for moving and dropping some of the original gems, today it is most often seen as the definitive chart of astrological birthstones.
Other Birthstone Origin Stories
In the East there are other interpretations and listings of birthstones that don't relate to the biblical breastplate. Those are most notably the Mythical Birthstone List, which is of Tibetan origin and goes back well over one thousand years, and the Ayurvedic Birthstone List, which dates back to around 1500 BC and relates to Ayurvedic Indian medicine.
Traditionally, people tended to wear their own birthstone, determined by their date of birth, with the belief that the birthstone bestowed a unique set of mental and medical advantages. However, around the mid 15th century in Poland, the wearing of birthstones gained notable popularity.
The Polish custom of wearing birthstones was somewhat different. Rather than wearing their own unique birthstone, Polish people tended to own a set of 12 birthstones. As expensive and romantic as that may seem, one set would cover each month of the year and people would wear their birthstones according to the date, regardless of their own date of birth.
- First Published: March-06-2012
- Last Updated: January-22-2019
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