The addition of a birth stone is a great way to personalise a piece of bespoke jewellery. Birth stones are usually associated with months of the year or the signs of the zodiac – which means they are particularly appropriate for birthdays or other special anniversaries – as well as qualities of character. But where did the idea of birthstones originate, and what do they each mean?
Choosing a birth stone
Birth stones are an ancient tradition or, more accurately, collection of traditions that are found in many cultures and religions stretching back over thousands of years.
In that respect, there is no ‘definitive’ list of which stone should be associated with which month or star sign. However, an international ‘industry standard’ exists in the form of the National Association of Goldsmith’s list of birthstones, which was created in 1937 and is a harmony of ancient and contemporary traditions:
January – garnet (constancy)
February – amethyst (sincerity)
March – aquamarine (courage)
April – diamond (innocence)
May – emerald (love)
June – pearl (health)
July – ruby (contentment)
August – peridot (family)
September – sapphire (presence of mind)
October – opal (hope)
November – topaz (faithfulness)
December – turquoise (prosperity)
Ancient birth stone traditions
Arguably the earliest list of birth stones is found in the Old Testament book of Exodus, which details tales dating from around 3,400 years ago. The breast plate of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the high priest, was decorated with 12 different semi-precious stones, representing each of the tribes of Israel.
Although the precise identification of the stones is almost impossible due to problems of translation, many critics believe that this is the origin of the idea of birth stones, and some have suggested that each of the breastplate stones also represented, or later came to be associated with, a month or sign of the zodiac.
In the New Testament book of Revelation, probably written in the early 2nd century, the idea is developed. The 12 foundations of the new city of Jerusalem were decorated with the stones, each of which was given the name of an Apostle. The 12 stones were jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, an emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolyte, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, and amethyst. At a later period, the stones were linked to a month and different meanings, which were symbolised by the colours of the stones.
Over the years, the idea of birth stones was continued in different cultures – notably Indian, Babylonian and Egyptian – which linked them to particular personal characteristics and even healing properties.
Again, these changed depending on the culture. The custom of actually wearing birth stones is thought to have come about in Poland around the 15th century, and became increasingly popular in Europe in the 18th century.
Birth stones, therefore, can be a thoughtful touch to add to an engagement ring, birthday or anniversary present.