THE HISTORY OF BIRTHSTONES

Birthstones – chipped off the throne of God?

When I sat down to research the history of birthstones, I wasn’t expecting biblical origins. (The modern list of birthstones created with profit and marketability in mind came as less of a surprise.) Typically I hear people complain about not liking the color of their birthstone, or feeling lucky because they were born in April and got the diamond! Basically, I went in with little to no knowledge. There isn’t a crystal clear (haha) timeline of the history of this tradition, but it appears to have come about through the mixing of religious, mystical, and capitalist ideology.
green diamond graphic
The origin of birthstones is ancient. Scholars can trace the idea back to the Bible, specifically the story of Exodus. Aaron, the High Priest of the Hebrews, wore a special breastplate containing 12 precious gemstones. Each stone represented one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The gems themselves were said to have been “chipped off the throne of God.” In the 1st century AD, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about the breastplate’s miraculous powers. He proposed that each of the gemstones had special powers associated with a corresponding astrological sign, and that wearing those stones would have therapeutic and protective benefits. He suggested that a person should have all 12 stones and wear them throughout the year during their designated month to receive maximum advantage.
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There is some debate about when and where the actual custom of wearing only a stone matching one’s birth month began. Some scholars claim it can be traced back to 18th century Poland, with the arrival of Jewish gem traders. Other sources suggest that the tradition started in 16th century Germany. Whether in Poland or Germany, the first lists of birthstones caught on and became popularized through poetry. In 1870, Tiffany & Co. published a promotional pamphlet featuring a birthstone poem and list.
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The modern accepted list of birthstones was created in 1912 by the National Association of Jewelers. The list is not identical to the original stones included in Aaron’s breastplate nor the pamphlet published by Tiffany & Co. – this was largely a business decision, as it provided a way to market more profitable gemstones.
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Birthstones have been involved in so many aspects of our culture, it’s hard not to feel a connection to yours. Whether birthstones contain mystical powers or they’re just a commercialized product, they’re still personal. They offer a way to connect to your own identity, and show others your appreciation for them. Each individual birthstone has a rich and interesting history behind it, which we’ll delve into in future posts.