Gemstones are part of my life. I’m around them all day at work! But many people feel that their interaction with gems and jewels is minimal. Our language, however, is quite “loaded” with references to gems. This pervasiveness means that it’s literally impossible to live life without some knowledge of gems.
Many women, and some MEN!, are named after gemstones. Have you ever met an Amber, a Ruby, or a Jade? Other well-known names include Beryl, Pearl, Opal, Jett, and Jasper. Names like Gemma and Crystal aren’t gemstone names, per se, but they mimic the idea of gems. And there are plenty of less-common names like Jacinth, Sapphire, and Garnet.
Beryl Markham, Aviatrix, and character in the movie, Out of Africa
Pearl S Buck, author of The Good Earth
Amber Tamblyn, actress. Starred in Two and a Half Men
Companies like Crayola and Pantene have borrowed names from gemstones to describe their colors. Do you remember coloring with crayons labeled Aquamarine or Amethyst? What about Pantene’s Color of the Year last year–Rose Quartz! Names like Ruby, Emerald, or Turquoise bring colors vividly to mind. The gemstone names can be colorful adjectives, and the entertainment industry has used them for years. Remember Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz with her RUBY red slippers? Or how about Dolly Parton singing about Jolene and her eyes of EMERALD green?
Even gemstones with little or no color get used a lot in our language. Diamond is the most popular gemstone used in songwriting. Pearl is the runner-up. Over 1200 songs were counted as having the word, Diamond. Rhianna has a recent song, “Diamonds”, which, I’m sure, is quite popular. My mind goes back to my 8th grade synchronized swimming program, when we swam to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” by Ethel Merman. (I guess that dates me, doesn’t it?)
There are sayings and quotations about gemstones. For example, “Diamond in the Rough” means that something or someone is valuable and good, but not polished or finished. “Pearls of Wisdom” means rare and worthy words of advice. Even the Bible contributes to the list with “Pearls before Swine” which talks about not giving out words or things of great value to those who won’t appreciate them. In general, gemstones are used as synonyms for something or someone rare, valuable, and special.
I love these funny quotations about gemstones and jewelry that I came across while researching for this blog.
Diamonds are only chunks of coal, that stuck to their jobs, you see. by Minnie Richard Smith
Jewelry takes people’s minds off your wrinkles. by Sonja Henie
I think men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage. They’ve experienced pain and bought jewelry. by Rita Rudner
But I want to end with a reference to gemstones that we all learned from early in our youth. This is proof, in my opinion, that one can’t go through life without some knowledge of gems:
Twinkle, twinkle little star– How I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high–Like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle little star–How I wonder what you are.
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
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: February birthstone
Most of us know that not every red gemstone is a ruby. Garnets, tourmaline, and even diamonds can be red. But if you are in the market for a ruby, know that many substitutes exist. I recently put on a seminar about rubies, their imitations, and synthetics. Let me share three pieces of advice on buying a ruby.
1) Buy it from an A.G.S. member store. Only jewelry stores who adhere to the strict consumer protection standards of the American Gem Society will have the A.G.S. sign by the front door. These stores are required to be informed on ethical issues and questionable practices facing the gemstone and jewelry industry. At least one employee of the store must be a registered jeweler, which requires yearly testing to renew the designation.
2) Look at that beautiful stone under the microscope. All A.G.S. member stores are required to have a microscope at their store. Ask to look at the piece you’re considering. If the stone shows some inclusions under magnification, especially whitish or colorless rounded crystals or a lacy-looking fingerprint, that’s a good sign. Be suspicious of a stone that looks perfect under magnification. Natural rubies generally have inclusions. Remember to ask about treatments on the stone. Most rubies have been heat-treated to improve their color and sometimes their clarity. Heat treatment is permanent and does not affect the durability of the stone. If the stone has fractures that have been lead glass-filled to enhance the clarity, it is not as valuable as one that has not. In fact, most gemologists feel that these “composite rubies” shouldn’t even be called rubies because so much of their weight is due to the lead-glass. Be aware that a glass-filled stone is not durable and should never be subjected to heat or an ultrasonic cleaner.
3) Don’t assume that, because it’s old, it’s real. Synthetic rubies have been produced since the early 1900s. Rubies were also imitated using glass, assembled stones of garnet and glass, and other natural red stones like spinel. Even the “Black Prince’s Ruby” in the British Imperial Crown is actually a 170 carat red spinel!
British Imperial Crown with the “Black Prince’s Ruby”