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Birthstones Part 2: Origins of Western Birthstone Lists - From Biblical to Traditional

By Yaĝé Enigmus

 

Today in contemporary western markets, gem dealers and private jewellers often mention ‘birthstones’ when asked for help in choosing a stone to gift or have made into gemstone jewellery. These birthstones are listed by month and many people have become familiar with the concept of owning a birthstone that matches the month in which they were born. But this tradition is only a few hundred years old, and the birthstone list has changed more than once during this time. Where did the first list come from and how did this tradition come about? The history of today’s birthstone list is almost as colourful as the stones themselves, and has roots in a time long before the development of modern civilization. 

The story of western birthstone traditions began with the twelve stones in the Breastplate of Aaron. These twelve stones were set in the high priest’s breastplate of ancient Jerusalem that was believed to have been constructed for Aaron, the first high priest, by his brother Moses with explicit instructions from God. Set in four rows of three, each of the twelve stones was believed to possess special properties and represent one of the twelve tribes of Israel, with the name of the tribe it represented engraved on the face of each stone. This breastplate served as an important ritual item for the Israelites, but no association between the stones and the time of the year had yet been made. 

Sometime during the 1st century C.E. Titus Flavius Josephus, a historian born in Jerusalem to the Jewish priest Matthias and a noblewoman descendant of the Hasmonean Dynasty, began examining the stones of the priestly breastplate. Josephus is credited with being the first to draw a connection between the twelve stones of the priestly breastplate, the twelve months of the year, and the twelve signs of the Greco-Roman zodiac. Josephus is said to have provided two different lists of what the twelve stones were. This may have been because he was met with the same difficulty faced today in understanding the Hebrew and Greek versions (the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, respectively) of what was already a one thousand year old account of the first temple era breastplate taken from the book of Exodus (28:15-30), or because he had dealt with some confusion after comparing the account from Exodus to the priestly breastplate of the second temple era that would have existed during Josephus’ time. 

Based on both Josephus’ account and the content of the Book of Exodus (without also considering archaeological evidence), the following is an approximation of what stones may have been mounted on the priestly breastplate and their relative location to one another:

After identifying a possible link between these stones, the months, and the zodiac, Josephus’ work was soon adapted into birthstone and zodiac lists of a more concrete nature. People at the time would have likely worn these stones based on the time of the year rather than their birthdate alone. With the development of the Arabic language occuring at this time, evidence suggests there may have been differences in the content of these lists based on the native language of those who adopted it.

Below are versions of the ‘biblical birthstones’ list based on contemporary understanding:

Month

Hebrew Birthstone Understanding

Arabic Birthstone Understanding

January

Carbuncle (Red Garnet)

Carbuncle (Red Garnet)

February

Amethyst

Amethyst

March 

Jasper

Bloodstone

April

Sapphire

Sapphire

May

Agate/Chalcedony

Emerald

June

Emerald

Agate/Chalcedony

July

Onyx

Carnelian

August

Carnelian

Sardonyx

September

Chrysolite (Peridot)

Chrysolite (Peridot)

October

Beryl/Aquamarine

Beryl/Aquamarine

November

Topaz

Topaz

December

Ruby

Ruby

 

Skyjems Ruby July Birthstone

Skyjems Sapphire September Birthstone

Click here for ruby, the December birthstone associated with both the Hebrew and Arabic understandings of the Bible.

Click here to see our collection of sapphire, the April birthstone associated with both the Hebrew and Arabic understandings of the Bible.

A few hundred years later during the 5th century C.E. Saint Jerome of Stridon, a Latin priest born in the Roman province of Dalmatia (what is now a portion of present-day Croatia and Slovenia), took notice of the twelve stones detailed in the Old Testament and the works of Josephus. Saint Jerome would have spent a significantly greater amount of time reading scripture than many other clergy members at the time, as he was the first person to translate the Bible into Latin (a version of the Bible now known as the Vulgate). In his examination of the Book of Revelations, Saint Jerome drew a connection between the twelve stones of the priestly breastplate mentioned by Josephus and the Foundation Stones of New Jerusalem (21:19-20), noting a high degree of similarity between the two lists. Saint Jerome likely used this to arrive at the conclusion that these stones were not just important to the Israelites, but were important for Christians as well. The observations of Saint Jerome would have inspired Christians to begin using these stones for religious purposes, with a clear association between the Founding Stones of New Jerusalem and the twelve apostles coming about sometime before the 9th century C.E..

Below is a version of the the apostle gemstone list based on contemporary understanding:

Apostle

Gemstone

Saint Thomas

Beryl/Aquamarine

Saint Peter

Jasper

Saint John

Emerald

Saint Thaddeus

Chrysoprase

Saint Simon

Jacinth (Orange/Red Zircon)

Saint Andrew

Carbuncle (Red Garnet)

Saint Philip

Carnelian

Saint Paul

Sapphire

Saint Bartholomew

Chrysolite (Peridot)

Saint Matthew

Topaz

Saint James

Sardonyx

Saint Matthias

Amethyst

It wasn’t until around the 16th century that these stones mentioned in the Bible were sold to people by jewellers purely on the basis of an individual’s date of birth. The practice is thought to have been introduced by Jewish jewellers of the time who would have adapted the list of biblical birthstones for this use. There still is some uncertainty as to whether this happened in Germany or Poland first, but the tradition of wearing a single stone based on one’s birth month had become common practice in Poland by the 18th century. By this time, as a result of both translational errors and varied customs, the list of birthstones that was in use had a number of differences between it and the stones of the priestly breastplate described by Josephus. This list was used by a number of different European societies and may have varied slightly from place to place depending on local traditions. Either during the 19th century or in the years preceding it, a number of English poems had been written that matched each month of the calendar with a particular stone, and this is considered the basis for the birthstone list used by English-speaking societies. In 1870 Tiffany & Co. published a pamphlet containing these poems, but attributed them to an “unknown author” still yet to be identified. These stones are now known as the ‘traditional birthstones’.

Below is one version of this list based on contemporary understanding:

Month

Traditional Birthstone

January

Garnet

February

Amethyst

March

Bloodstone

April

Diamond

May

Emerald

June

Pearl

July

Ruby

August

Sardonyx/Carnelian

September

Sapphire

October

Opal

November

Topaz

December

Turquoise

The European practice of wearing a single stone based on birth month continued and is still practiced today, but the list of stones in use has changed more than once since the 19th century. 

Learn more about how this list changed and evolved in the next installment of this series.


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