Birthstones - A Brief History
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
The tradition of wearing birthstones has developed over many centuries and in many parts of the world.
Throughout history, people have attributed healing, magical, spiritual, or protective properties to gemstones. Amethysts, for example, open psychic abilities while garnets are thought to bring prosperity and luck. Birthstones, gemstones that correspond to the birth date of the wearer, have historically been thought to bring good luck, as well as to have healing or mystical energies.
Different traditions and cultures vary in the way they designate birthstones. You can choose your birthstone according to your Zodiac sign, birth month, Tibetan mystical tradition, or according to the modern standard list developed by the National Association of Jewelers in 1912. You can even select your birthstone according to the day of the week on which you were born.
Birthstone lore traces the origin of birthstone traditions to the bejewelled breastplate of Aaron, the Old Testament high priest and brother of Moses. Tibetan traditions link birthstones to the twelve astrological signs. Ayurvedic traditions, which originate from Indian medicinal practices, contain nine birthstones rather than twelve. These nine stones are associated with the nine planets of the solar system.
Our modern practice of wearing birthstones as good luck talismans developed in Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries but people in that era did not wear their own birth month stone exclusively as we do now. They believed each month had a lucky stone, so they changed the stones they wore accordingly to perpetuate their good fortune.
Today, wearing the birthstone associated with either your birth month or Zodiac sign is the prevalent custom, but some people choose their birthstones according to the day of the week on which they were born.
What’s the Difference Between Modern and Traditional Birthstones?
The list of traditional or ancient birthstones most well-known in the United States actually originated in Poland between the 16th and 18th centuries. In 1912, the National Association of Jewelers released a list of so-called “modern birthstones.” The modern list differed somewhat from the traditional, most notably by including only transparent gems. Presumably, this made it easier for jewelers to create “mother’s rings,” which feature the birthstones of a woman’s children, in a manner more suited to modern tastes. (Imagine trying to create a ring with a pearl, a turquoise cabochon, and a diamond and emerald, both faceted).
To this day, jewelers continue to add options to the modern birthstone chart. For example, spinel, citrine, and tanzanite are recent additions to the modern list.
In the United States today, people draw freely from both lists and pick the stones that appeal to them. Some traditional gems are also less expensive (like turquoise) or more readily available (like cultivated pearls) than their modern counterparts. Thus, some traditional stones remain popular.
We’ll note which stones are the most popular options by month. However, you should pick the birthstones you like best. So, if you want that pearl, turquoise, diamond, and emerald mother’s ring, go for it. (And there are also many different types of alternative birthstone lists to choose from).