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Birthstones Part 1: What are Birthstones?

 By Yaĝé Enigmus

When giving the gift of a gemstone or custom gemstone jewellery, it can sometimes take a bit of thought to pick the right stone, especially if the receiver doesn’t already have a favorite stone, favourite colour, or other guiding clue as to which gemstone they would prefer. Choosing to gift someone with their birthstone or a piece of bespoke jewellery set with their birthstone is an easy way to give a gift that has been personalized to the owner and has a special meaning. While many people are familiar with the general concept of birthstones, they may not know what each of the birthstones are, or may disagree about which stones are true birthstones. 

What exactly are birthstones? A birthstone is a stone associated with a certain element of a given time and date, but what this means can vary in different parts of the world. Today it is common, particularly in western nations, for stones to be associated with the twelve months of the Gregorian calendar and for people to wear or own a stone that matches their birth month, based on a contemporary list that is considered ‘official’. For those who are familiar with this list, it may seem limited, particularly if they happen to not like the stones that are paired with their birth month. Fortunately these are not the only choices available, as this list was not always the same as it is today, and additional lists exist in different parts of the world based on different traditions from other periods. 

Prior to the existence of the current official birthstone list, not only did there exist a previous version that possessed a number of differences, but an even older version of this list exists that is believed to date back to some time in the 16th century, known as the ‘Traditional Birthstones’. In addition to these lists that associate stones with the twelve months of the year, associations have developed between gemstones and each day of the week, as well as associations between certain stones and each hour of the day, generating further birthstone lists. Outside of these practices derived from European societies, there exist birthstone lists that derive from other cultures as well. 

A portion of the stones within the ‘Traditional Birthstones’ list are also regarded as being some of the twelve biblical stones mentioned in descriptions of the high priest’s breastplate of ancient Jerusalem found in the Old Testament; interestingly, there is a connection between these stones and the development of European birthstone traditions. Due to nuances within translations of some parts of the original Hebrew descriptions, and the presence of similar issues in translations of the Greek version of the Old Testament that soon followed, there has long been disagreement among scholars as to what a number of the stones named in the Old Testament actually are. Consequently, one may find more than one version of this list, or may find a list that includes all stones thought to match the language used in the original Hebrew and Greek descriptions of the high priest’s breastplate. 

Within Tibetan beliefs, there exists a list of stones paired with each month based on the properties they were thought to have. These are known as the ‘Mystical Birthstones’, and this list is believed to be at least one thousand years old. In ancient Indian traditions a set of nine gems are associated with specific celestial bodies, and it is said that two lists of twelve stones exist that are believed to possess special properties and are intimately associated with certain astrological meanings; one list of twelve stones is sometimes associated with the lunisolar months of the Hindu calendar, and the other list associated with these months is derived from Ayurvedic medicine based on the healing properties the stones were believed to have. Contemporary adaptations of these lists can be found that use the twelve months of the Gregorian calendar. Evidence suggests these lists of stones are at least 3500 years old, dating back to the late days of the Indus Valley Civilization. In both Greco-Roman and Chinese astrology, certain stones are associated with each sign of the zodiac. The Greco-Roman system would have been an adaptation of the twelve stones mentioned in the Old testament, while in Chinese belief each sign of the Chinese zodiac had a material or stone associated with it that is said to have been put on Earth by the gods in order to help people of that sign connect with the spiritual world. 

Unlike contemporary practices, the gems treasured by many of these older societies would not have originally been worn to merely match one’s birth date, but in some cases would have been worn at various times of the year or for different occasions depending on a given culture’s beliefs. This may have been for ceremonial purposes, to match the current date on the calendar, or to match the astrological readings one may have recently received. A recurring commonality between various birthstone lists is that certain stones appear to be regarded as important by almost all cultures. To no surprise, ruby, sapphire, emerald, opal, pearl, garnet, topaz, amethyst, and diamond appear repeatedly on numerous lists. 

With such a rich and varied definition of what is considered a ‘birthstone’, there is no shortage of options available when choosing the perfect gemstone for a gift or custom jewellery design. The variety of beliefs within each of these traditions allows for one to also consider the meaning they may want to send with their gift while still choosing a true birthstone. 

Below are the birthstone lists used in the U.S. and UK as of 2016 and 2013 respectively:



U.S. Birthstone (2016)


UK Birthstone (2013)

[Alternative Stones in Brackets]








Aquamarine, Bloodstone

Aquamarine, [Bloodstone]



Diamond, [Rock Crystal]*



Emerald, [Chrysoprase]


Pearl, Moonstone, Alexandrite

Pearl, [Moonstone]



Ruby, [Carnelian]


Peridot, Spinel

Peridot, [Sardonyx]



Sapphire, [Lapis Lazuli]


Opal, Pink Tourmaline



Topaz, Citrine



Turquoise, Zircon, Tanzanite

Tanzanite, [Turquoise]

*"Rock Crystal" is another name for colourless quartz

Stay tuned for further exploration of individual birthstone lists from throughout history and their origins. In the next installment, we will discuss the origins of western birthstone lists.

© Yaĝé Enigmus

1 comment

  • Thank you..for the article. I’m a uk opal. Very interesting. I look forward to reading more about gemstones in the future.

    Angela Cumson

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