History of Birthstones

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Garnet: January birthstone

Most of my life I’ve wished I was born a few days earlier, mainly because my birthstone would be an emerald instead of pearl or alexandrite.  When it came time to buy my high school class ring, I chose the emerald green stone rather than the pale purple one.  When my husband and I designed our 30-year anniversary ring, we designed it with an emerald for the center stone, even though pearl is the traditional gift for the 30-year anniversary.  As you can see, I’ve always just gone with what I wanted rather than what I was ‘supposed’ to want.  But my decisions got me to thinking about the origin of birthstones.  Who deemed that each month be represented by a different gemstone?  When was this decision made?  And why?

My research on these questions has revealed an interesting and somewhat nonsensical journey.  Most sources say that the idea of birthstones started with the Bible and Aaron’s breastplate.  Aaron had 12 stones in his breastplate, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.  No one knows for sure what the 12 stones were, but chances are high that they were pretty rocks, like jasper or lapis.  These are rocks that were native to the area.

A first century historian named Josephus supposedly made the numeric connection between the 12 stones and the 12 months of the year.  For centuries the idea was to have 12 stones, carrying a different one each month.  They weren’t really birthstones because they weren’t associated with the owner’s birth.  They were associated with months of the year.  The individual stones were supposed to bring good luck and good health during each one’s specific month.

But somewhere along the way, the idea changed.  Experts say that between the 15th and 18th centuries, people began to see themselves as having one stone, corresponding to the month of their birth, that would bring them good fortune.  These stones, with a few exceptions, are very different from the birthstones of today.  Have you ever heard of bloodstone?  It’s an opaque green stone with red spots.  It was the birthstone for March.  How about sardonyx?  That’s a banded, rusty brown-colored, translucent chalcedony that was the birthstone for August.

Bloodstone: March birthstone

Bloodstone: March birthstone

Sardonyx: August birthstone

Sardonyx: August birthstone

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1912, Jewelers of America, an association with a definite interest in marketing gemstones, sought to standardize the list.  The official list of birthstones had garnet, amethyst, aquamarine, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, peridot, sapphire, opal, topaz (the orange-yellow-brown kind), and turquoise.  Some of the months had two birthstones, partly in deference to the traditional stones.  So March had aquamarine AND bloodstone.  August had peridot AND sardonyx.  But, let’s face it, if you were born in March, which gem would you rather have?  A transparent medium blue one or an opaque dark green one with red blemishes?  It didn’t take long to drop these traditional choices.

The 1912 list has had few changes in the last 100+ years.  In 1952, alexandrite was added as a birthstone for June and citrine was added as a birthstone for November.  December’s traditional birthstone of lapis lazuli was replaced with blue zircon.  In 2002, tanzanite, the blue-purple gemstone that had been discovered in 1967, was added to the list for December.  And, most recently, in 2016, spinel was added as a birthstone for August.

Why the additions?  Many people would say it’s a marketing move.  Birthstones aren’t really seen as bringing good luck or good health anymore.   They don’t have the significance they used to have.  They’re just fun.  So why not have more choices?  I’m really happy for all you August babies who no longer feel confined to the yellowish-green of peridot.  Spinel offers great variety! (See my blog on spinel–July 28, 2016).

So, what do we make of this idea of birthstones?  To me it sounds like a complicated game of Telephone.  Do you remember that game when someone whispers a phrase to someone else, and it goes around the circle?  The final uttering of the phrase bears no resemblance to the original.  That’s how I feel birthstones came to be.  From Aaron’s breastplate to the writings of Josephus to the Jewelers’ list, it’s a crazy, convoluted path. But this is where we are and what we have.  My suggestion?  Adopt your favorite gemstone, the one that has meaning to you,  and make it YOUR birthstone.

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Amethyst: February birthstone

A Crater of Diamonds

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Have you ever heard of Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas?  The place where you can sift through the dirt and look for the sparkle of a diamond?  I so wish my parents had taken me here when I was a kid!!  Even though the possibility of finding a diamond is small–only about 1-2% of all visitors leave with one–the probability of having a good time is very high.

Crater of Diamonds has been a state park since the early 1970s.  The park encompasses over 900 acres, but 37 of those acres sit on a volcanic pipe.  This pipe, which was part of a 95 million year old volcano (long since eroded), carried diamonds to the Earth’s surface.  Today, Crater of Diamonds is the only diamond-bearing site that is open to the public.  For eight dollars you can search from morning til night.  The park has exhibits and videos that give you the history of the area as well as good tips on how to search for diamonds.  It has equipment you can rent, things like shovels and sifting screens, or you can bring your own.  Over the years the park has been the location for some remarkable stories.

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The biggest diamond ever found there, or anywhere in the U.S., was a 40.23 carat stone called Uncle Sam.  It was found back in 1924, when the area was still owned by a diamond mine.  Other big finds have been made over the years.  As recently as 2015, an 8.52 carat diamond was found, and has been named Esperanza.  Most of the diamonds found, however, are small.  Approximately 90% of the diamonds are less than 1/4 carat, which is only about the size of a match head . The diamonds from this site are yellow, brown, or colorless.  They are not easy to find, but one feature that helps is that they look polished, almost as if they have an oily film on them.  Also, they’re usually translucent, which means you can see into them but you can’t see through them.  If you’re not sure what you’ve found, there is an expert at the site, ready to help you with identification.

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The park is a popular place.  It had 168,000 visitors last year.  In addition to looking for diamonds, there is a water park and camping.  It sounds like the place for a perfect day, if you’re a kid.  Go get dusty and dirty looking for rocks, and then get cooled and cleaned off at the water park!  Heck, it sounds great even if you’re not a kid!!

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If you’d rather look for colored gems, amethysts, garnets, and agates have also been found at Crater of Diamonds.  But there are, perhaps, better locations in the U.S. if you’re rockhounding for colored gemstones.  Check out Gem Mountain in Montana for sapphires.  Or Emerald Hollow Mine in North Carolina for emeralds, rubies, and aquamarine.  Morefield Mine in Virginia is a source for amazonite, beryl, garnet, amethyst, and topaz.

It’s not too early to start planning next summer’s vacation.  Ask your kids and they’ll tell you–“We want to dig for gemstones!”

 

Pink Diamonds on a Pink Day

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As walkers for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure passed by our store last weekend, and pink balloons lined the street, I thought of the perfect coordinating topic–pink diamonds.

Did you know that diamonds come in different colors?  Red is the rarest and most expensive color of diamond.  Yellow and brown are the most common.  Pink diamonds come mainly from a famous mine in Western Australia–the Argyle Mine.  It is the world’s largest supplier of naturally colored diamonds.

Diamonds are made of pure carbon and, with no structural anomalies or chemical impurities, they are colorless.  But trace elements like nitrogen can create a yellow or brown hue to diamonds.  Structural anomalies in the crystal structure can lead to a pink, red, green, or blue hue.  Diamonds exhibiting structural anomalies, however, are quite rare, accounting for about 2% of all diamonds.

Irradiation, whether natural or man-induced, will change the crystal structure.  Early in the 1900s, experiments were conducted with irradiating diamonds.  At first, the diamonds were radioactive and could not be worn.  Now we know how to irradiate diamonds safely.  Most blue and green diamonds on the market today have been irradiated by man.  Naturally irradiated diamonds, like the Hope Diamond, are incredibly rare and valuable.

Sometimes fancy colored diamonds are annealed, which is a heating process that can alter the crystal structure.  Many bright yellow, orange, or pink diamonds have been both irradiated and annealed.  So a natural pink diamond, like the ones from the Argyle Mine, are very expensive.  Recently, an Argyle Pink Diamond necklace( with 909 pink diamonds totaling 34.81 cts) and ring(with a 0.48ct fancy vivid pink diamond center) sold for $890,000.

Pink diamonds are a good complement to last weekend’s walk for the cure to breast cancer.  But, while pink diamonds are both beautiful and  valuable, finding the cure to breast cancer is priceless.

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