History of Birthstones & How They Got Their Meaning

Updated May 3, 2021
Different semiprecious stones

People have long used gemstones to represent the months of the year, and the history of birthstones is fascinating and illuminating. From the use of gemstones in the Bible to the official birthstone list from 1912, these colored gems are highly symbolic.

History of Birthstones in the Bible

The history of birthstones can be traced back thousands of years. There are several interpretations as to how birthstones came to correspond with specific birth months, and the Bible is one of the oldest parts of that history. Today, birthstone rosaries are still popular, and birthstone jewelry is a popular gift for religious holidays.

Exodus: Breastplate With 12 Gemstones

According to the book of Exodus in the Bible, a Hebrew high priest named Aaron was ordered by God to create a breastplate with 12 gemstones. These 12 gemstones link to today's modern birthstones and were supposed to have special powers to tell the future. The story says that the stones were set in four rows of three and were mounted in gold filigree settings. 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. The stones were as follows:

  • First row: carnelian, beryl, and chrysolite
  • Second row: agate, jacinth, and amethyst
  • Third row: onyx, topaz, and jasper

It's important to note that at the time the Bible was recorded, the naming of gemstones was based more on color than on the chemical or mineral composition of the gem. This means that the term "onyx" could describe any black gemstone, and the term "chrysolite" meant a gem with gold highlights.

person holding a crystal

Gemstones and the Apostles

During the eighth and ninth centuries, Christians assigned stones to represent the 12 apostles. There was a practice of wearing one of these stones each month:

  • Simon/ Peter - jasper
  • Andrew - ruby
  • James and John - emerald
  • Philip - carnelian
  • Bartholomew - peridot
  • Thomas - aquamarine
  • Matthew - topaz
  • James - sardonyx
  • Thaddeus - chrysoprase
  • Simon - zircon
  • Matthias - amethyst
  • Paul - sapphire

Revelations: Stones Linked With the Calendar Months

In the Bible's book of Revelations, the foundation stones of the new Jerusalem are listed in order of the Roman calendar. They are listed in the following order: jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, and amethyst.

Hindu Birthstone Tradition

A Hindu text from the fifth century is also part of the origin of birthstones. The Ratna Shastra tells of a link between gems and gods, months, days of the week, and certain qualities. This practice included nine gems, and these gems were always paired with a bright red gem, such as ruby. When worn together, the gems could provide good fortune, harmony, and protection to the person who wore them.

Origin of Modern Birthstones

The practice of wearing a birthstone to represent your month of birth began in Germany or Poland sometimes in the 1500s. Still, there was no agreed-upon guide to which stone represented which month. Regionally, a stone could mean one thing and represent something completely different in a different country. Over time, poems, songs, and lists began to dictate the association of these gems with specific months.

1870: Tiffany & Co.'s Pamphlet of Gregorian Birthstone Poems

In 1870, jeweler Tiffany & Co. published a pamphlet of anonymous Gregorian birthstone poems, which were likely written long before this publication. There was a short poem for each month, associating that month with a specific gem. Each poem offered a clear link to a gem, such as this one for February:

"The February-born shall find sincerity and peace of mind,

Freedom from passion and from care, if they an amethyst will wear."

This may be the first official listing of modern birthstones and their months, although if you look at the chart below, you will note that some months have a different birthstone than they have today.

Month Birthstone as Listed in the Gregorian Poems
January garnet
February amethyst
March bloodstone
April diamond
May emerald
June agate
July ruby
August sardonyx
September sapphire
October opal
November topaz
December turquoise
Silver ring with Topaz

1912: Jewelers of America Association Birthstone List

Even after the Tiffany & Co. pamphlet, there was some variation on the specific gems used to represent the months. In 1912, the Jewelers of America Association formalized and standardized a modern birthstone list. Industry leaders added stone alternatives for some of the months in 1952. This is the modern birthstone chart with the 1912 original and 1952 additions:

Month 1912 Birthstone Changes in 1952
January garnet none
February amethyst none
March aquamarine, bloodstone none
April diamond none
May emerald none
June pearl, moonstone added alexandrite
July ruby none
August peridot none
September sapphire none
October opal added pink tourmaline
November topaz added citrine
December turquoise, zircon removed zircon, added lapis
Solitaire Diamond Ring

21st Century Changes to the Birthstone List

The 21st century has seen a couple of significant changes to the gemstone list, prompted by jewelry marketing of certain gems. The industry added tanzanite as a December birthstone in 2002, and August received the addition of spinel in 2016. These encourage people to buy these specific gems, and there are marketing campaigns surrounding the new birthstones.

Wearing Birthstones Today

The history of birthstones and how they are worn stretches back over many centuries, and it's still common to wear your own birthstone or one of someone significant to you. If you're ever in doubt about which birthstone you should wear, take a look at the most current birthstone chart. No matter what stones you like or decide to wear, birthstones are always fashionable and always full of deep meaning.

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