The history of birthstones is a fascinating look into how we came obsessed with the beautiful little packets of color. Of the gifts of jewelry a woman receives throughout her lifetime, a birthstone pendant or ring is typically one of the very first. Birthstone jewelry is incredibly popular and always a top gift for birthdays, Mother’s Day and other gift-giving holidays. But where did this tradition begin? Why do we associate a specific gemstone with each month of the year? Join us on a historical journey to trace the origins of this beautiful tradition.
Origin of the 12 Stones
Eastern and Western cultures have different ideas of how birthstones came to be. In the Western tradition, birthstones evolved from a story in the Bible, from the book of Exodus. The prophet Moses decreed that a breastplate should be made for Aaron, the High Priest of the Hebrew people. That breastplate featured twelve gemstones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The stones used in the breastplate differ depending on the translation and were not standardized until the eighth or ninth century.
In Eastern culture, birthstones are much more closely tied to astrology and the signs of the zodiac. The Hindu culture creates an astrological chart for each person at the time of his or her birth. It includes constellations, the sun, and the moon as well as the planets. This chart recommends specific gemstones the person should wear to safeguard herself throughout life.
Matching Stones to Months
So how did gemstones go from representing tribes of people or individual birth dates to representing months? In the Middle Ages, it became common for people to wear a different stone each month of the year, a custom that eventually evolved to wearing a single stone to represent the month of an individual’s birth. The Eastern and Western traditions intermingled during this time. The Eastern tradition of stones protecting the wearer came to the West, and people began to believe their birthstone protected them or strengthened one of their natural attributes. The stones that represented each month varied widely based on religious tradition and culture. In 1912, the Jewelers of America met in Kansas and created a standardized list. While some gems have been added to the list, the basics remain the same in America. In 1932, the British National Association of Goldsmiths met and created its own list. This list can be found on our page ‘List of Birthstones by Month‘. It is very similar to America’s list but has some extra stones that can be substituted for some of the months.
The Birthstone Meanings
The significance of gemstones can be traced back to the earliest records of human history. Each gemstone has a tradition of meaning that endures today. Here are the birthstones, the months they represent, and their myriad meanings.
This deep red gemstone represents the month of January and the sign of Aquarius. It is most commonly known for its properties of protection. Garnet is often carried to safeguard travelers or to ward off nightmares and can also mean wealth and success. It is also one of the only gemstones that do not have variants in different cultures – January is always represented by garnet.
Well known for its crystalline beauty, amethyst represents February and the sign of Pisces. It has the positive qualities of courage and clear thinking and is said to eliminate stress and promote communication. Because of the purple color, amethyst beads and gemstones have historically been associated with royalty and wealth.
This gem gets its name from its seawater blue color. It represents the month of March. No doubt because of the beautiful, clear color, it is known to represent purity. It is often used in healing rituals of both the body and relationships.
An alternate birthstone for the month of March and the official stone for the sign of Aries, bloodstone is also known as a healing stone. Many people carry it for health and long life, and it is therefore often known as a good luck charm in competitions.
Easily the most popular gemstone outside the realm of birthstone meaning, diamonds represent love. People born in the month of April get to claim this sparkling stone as their own. It is the strongest and hardest of the gemstones, so in addition to love, it can mean eternity and indestructibility.
This bright green gem represents the month of May and the sign of Cancer. Like the diamond, it is also associated with love though it carries the further meaning of fertility. More modern meanings attributed to the stone are wisdom and patience.
Another jewel popular outside of birthstone culture is June’s pearl. Since the time of Ancient Greece, pearls have represented purity. Pearls are also known as the traditional jewel for a 30th wedding anniversary, as well as the stone associated with sincerity.
June is gifted with a second beautiful stone, the moonstone. Generally, this gem means hope, though it is said to have a stronger pull over women than men. Wearing moonstone beads is believed to enhance feminine intuition and provide protection, especially during pregnancy and childbirth.
Though most stones have months and Zodiac signs that align closely, rubies represent July and the sign of Capricorn – nearly opposites! Ruby is known as the king of gems and has many different meanings, including love, health, and wisdom. Wearing a ruby is said to bring good luck.
Sometimes called an “evening emerald” due to the light green color, Peridot is the birthstone for August. By itself, it symbolizes strength, but when set in gold, it is also said to protect from nightmares. Peridot is also the traditional 16th wedding anniversary gem.
The rich blue color of sapphire is another color traditionally associated with royalty. The lucky people born in September get to wear this beautiful gemstone as their birthstone. It represents wisdom and was historically used to protect against poison.
Its unique, shifting colors are the reason opal is named as it is – derived from the Greek word “opallios,” which means to see a change of color. The opal is the birthstone of October — rather fitting in climates where the leaves change color this time of year. It represents faithfulness and confidence and was traditionally worn to protect eyesight.
The first birthstone for the month of November is the golden topaz. It also symbolizes the sign of Sagittarius. Its meaning across all cultures is straightforward: love and affection. As a derivative of this meaning, it is said the stone can improve the sweetness of the wearer’s disposition.
A second golden gemstone represents November babies, the citrine. It is known as the stone of abundance, promoting prosperity and helping both to attain and maintain wealth and all good things.
December is represented by one of the oldest stones in human history — used by ancient shamans and warriors. Turquoise is a good luck charm that is said to keep away evil spirits and generally protect the wearer.
A newer stone in popular history, tanzanite is a secondary birthstone for December that was used by ancient cultures. It is said to bring truth, wisdom, and dignity to the wearer and was used by ancient cultures as a pathway to the spiritual realms.
Whether you prefer to honor a birth month or a sign of the zodiac, there is a gorgeous gemstone to represent you and your loved ones. Give a piece of birthstone jewelry as a birthday gift, or have a special piece of multiple birthstones made for a mother or grandmother in your life. No matter your spiritual tradition, these gems are a meaningful reminder of the special days of your life.