Category: November Birthstone

History of Birthstones

| September 16, 2016 | Reply
garnet

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.

amethyst

Amethyst: February birthstone

Quartz-So Common and yet so Special

Flawless Quartz Crystal Sphere at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (106.75 lbs)

Flawless Quartz Crystal Sphere at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (106.75 lbs)

This crystal sphere is the largest cut piece of  flawless quartz in the world, weighing in at 242,323 carats!  It symbolizes our fascination with something so beautiful and yet so common.  Quartz is found around the world, in large quantities, and is considered one of the most common minerals on Earth.  It’s found in sand, dirt, and dust.  Yet, when fashioned by gem cutters and put in a stunning piece of jewelry, it can be breathtaking.

Quartz is a complicated gemstone.  One of the reasons it’s tricky is because the term “quartz” is used for varieties of gems, as well as for a species of gem and as a group of gems.  So, for example, Rose Quartz is a variety of the species Quartz.  So is Citrine, Amethyst, and Tiger’s Eye!  All these varieties, and others that are couched under the species of Chalcedony, such as Agate and Jasper, are considered to be members of the group, Quartz.  Very confusing!!

Perhaps it’s best to start with the fact that mineralogists and geologists see any mineral with the chemical makeup of silicon dioxide, SiO2, as Quartz.  Regardless of whether the crystals making up that stone are large, small, or microscopic, it’s all Quartz.  Gemologists, on the other hand, separate the gems into those whose crystals are larger and those too small to see without a high-powered microscope.  Those with larger crystals are called Quartz and those with microcrystalline structures are labeled Chalcedony.

Under these two species are many varieties that are used in jewelry.  Probably the most commonly known variety of the quartz species is Amethyst.  That regal purple has been admired for centuries.  The purple color comes from natural irradiation acting upon a trace element of iron.  The saturated, medium to deep reddish purple is the most prized color, but amethyst ranges from a light, pinkish purple to that deep purple hue.  Amethyst is not rare, but the prized color is more rare because usually only the tips of the amethyst crystals have that depth of color.

Agate and Amethyst, showing the deep purple tips of the quartz crystals, as well as the microcrystalline Agate, which is part of the Chalcedony species.

Agate and Amethyst, showing the deep purple tips of the quartz crystals, as well as the microcrystalline Agate, which is part of the Chalcedony species.

Other varieties of the Quartz species include Citrine, the orange-yellow gemstone that’s November’s birthstone, and Rock Crystal, which is colorless because it has no trace elements.  There’s also Rose Quartz, Smoky Quartz, Prasiolite (aka Green Amethyst), and Ametrine (a bi-colored gem combining the purple of Amethyst and the yellow of Citrine).

Members the Chalcedony species have been used in jewelry even longer than Amethyst!  Agates, which exhibit wavy bands of color, were used in amulets and talismans over 3000 years ago.  They were also used to make cameos.  Carvers would reveal a differently colored band by carving down around the subject of the piece.  Today you’ll see agate slice pendants that are sometimes dyed to accentuate the banding.

Probably the most valuable member of the Chalcedony species is Chrysoprase.  This translucent gemstone is beloved for its natural apple-green color.  It owes its color to the presence of  nickel.  A big discovery of Chrysoprase was made in 1965 in Australia.  Because its color can resemble fine jadeite, it’s sometimes called “Australian Jade.”

Chrysoprase cabochon

Chrysoprase cabochon

Other varieties of the Chalcedony species include Black Onyx (dyed black chalcedony), Carnelian, Jasper, and Fire Agate.  Most chalcedony is translucent to opaque, so it’s rarely faceted.  Most often it’s fashioned into beads, slices or cabochons.  But, just like all Quartz, it registers a 7 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, making it a good choice for rings and bracelets as well as earrings and pendants.

There’s so much that can be said about this beautiful mineral that surrounds us everyday.  But I want to end with the sentiment– “How wonderful when something so common can also be so special!”

Custom-made Ametrine Ring in our showcase!

Custom-made Ametrine Ring in our showcase!