Category: Sapphire

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

Common Gemstone Treatments–Heating, Irradiating, and Bleaching

The Earth is very hot–over 10000 degrees Fahrenheit at its core.  Over the millions of years that gemstones formed in the earth, some have been subjected to high temperatures.  Interestingly enough, this heat can alter the light absorption of the stone, changing its color.  Sometimes heat “improves” the color of the stone, perhaps taking a gray, brown, or almost colorless stone and turning it to a cheerful blue or a regal purple.

Man has found a way to heat stones that Earth neglected to heat.  The most common types of heat treated gemstones are ruby, sapphire, topaz, tanzanite, and zircon.  If you buy one of these stones, you can be quite certain that it’s been heated by man.  You’d pay a huge premium to have beautiful color without man-made heat.  The time spent heating, the temperature, and the other treatments that may be combined with heat will all vary depending on the raw material.

non-heat treated tanzanite on the left and heat-treated tanzanite on the right

Non-heat treated tanzanite on the left and heat-treated tanzanite on the right

 

Our planet also naturally irradiates stones.  Irradiation can change the arrangement of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the atoms of the stone.  This can alter the color of stones as well.  Man has figured out how to irradiate gemstones in order to improve color.  They can be treated to high energy radiation at a gamma ray facility that uses cobalt-60 so that there is no residual radioactivity.  Diamonds are sometimes irradiated to create beautiful fancy colored diamonds.  Colored diamonds can occur naturally, but it’s rare for them to be blue or green.  That’s why famous gems like the Hope Diamond or the Dresden Green are so amazing.   If you see a blue or green diamond, chances are man has irradiated it.  Blue topaz is another irradiated gem stone.  It’s the combination of irradiation and heat treatment that brings out that beautiful Swiss or London Blue in topaz.

The sun gave us inspiration for bleaching.  Stones often look prettier if they are whiter or less brownish.  Pearls and jadeite are both commonly bleached–and not by the sun. The process involves hydrogen peroxide or some type of acid.  Pearls, even if they are natural in color rather than dyed, are still often bleached to lighten and brighten the color nature gave them.

Unbleached jade on the left and bleached jade on the right

Unbleached jadeite on the left and bleached jadeite on the right

 

Most people in the jewelry industry accept these three treatments.  Since heating, irradiating, and bleaching could have all occurred naturally, it seems that man is helping out by making a natural process accessible to more gemstones.  And since all of these treatments are permanent, no one has to worry about their gemstone changing over time.  Finally, without these treatments, colored gemstones and pearls would be much more expensive and exclusive.

Our final post of this series will be about treatments that are not as commonly accepted.  These are treatments you, as the consumer, should definitely be aware of before you buy.  Treatments such as surface coating and fracture filling can enhance the look of the stone but may not be permanent.  Remember to ask questions if you want to know about treatments on a gemstone you’re planning to purchase.