Geology Home Page physical geology historical geology planetary gems
Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Michael Jones
The Origin of Birthstones
connection between gemstones and birthdays was made by a Jewish historian named
Josephus. He proclaimed that there was a connection between the twelve stones in
the high priest breastplate, the months of the year, and the twelve zodiac
signs. The twelve gemstones in the breastplate were each, according to biblical
description, to be made from specific materials, none of them the same as
another, and each of them represent a certain tribe, whose name was inscribed in
the stone related to it. The breastplate was made of gold with 4 rows by 3
columns of gemstones.
Masoretic text, is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible.
Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures.
Odem (in the Masoretic text) / Sardios (in the Septuagint) - both names mean red, and probably refers to Sard, an immensely common stone in classical cultures. Ignoring the Septuagint, Odem might also refer to Carnelian, which was flesh-coloured, or to Jasper, which was usually a deep blood-red, was valued as a charm against bleeding, and was common in the surrounding nations of Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria.
Pit'dah (in the Masoretic text) / Topazios (in the Septuagint) - despite the suggestion of the Septuagint that it was Topaz, Topaz was barely known at the time the Book of Exodus was written; in the classical era, topazios referred to an island on which a particular yellow mineral was mined. The word pit'dah is thought by scholars to be connected with the Assyrian word hipindu, which refers to something that flashed, and thus the jewel in question would fit the description of Chrysolite, a translucent greenish yellow mineral, common throughout the Levant region, and particularly found on a particular island in the Red Sea, under the control of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Bareket (in the Masoretic text) / Smaragdos (in the Septuagint) - Bareket means shimmering/shiny; Smaragdos is a cognate with Emerald, and literally means green stone, but is somewhat of a false friend as it was used to refer to a number of different green gems, not just the Emerald in particular. Bareket doesn't refer to any particular color, while Smaragdos was often used in Greek literature to refer to an intensely bright crystal found in column formations. The only minerals fitting these details are heliodor and rock crystal.
Nofekh (in the Masoretic text) / Anthrax (in the Septuagint) - while Anthrax simply means coal. Nofekh appears to be a loan word; it may derive from the Egyptian term m-f-k-t, referring to Malachite or Turquoise, both of which are a greenish blue; it may instead derive from lupakku, a term appearing in the Amarna letters, referring to a mineral of unknown color. In classical rabbinical literature there is some debate between whether Nofekh was red or greenish blue; Exodus Rabbah and the second Jerusalem Targum favor it being red, while the Babylonian Targum and first Jerusalem Targum favor it being green.
Sapir (in the Masoretic text) / Sapphiros (in the Septuagint) - despite appearing to refer to Sapphire, Sapphire was essentially unknown before the era of the Roman Empire, and even once it became more known was treated as merely being a form of hyacinth or of jacinth. It is more likely that the term Sapir referred to a mineral of similar color to Sapphires, and that the name gradually came to refer to the latter mineral, on account of its color; scholars think the most likely candidate is lapis lazuli.
Yahalom (in the Masoretic text) / Onychion (in the Septuagint) - in some other places the Septuagint instead has Beryllios where the Masoretic reads Yahalom. The word Yahalom appears to be connected with the Hebrew meaning strike hard, and possibly with the word hallamish meaning flint; hallamish is connected to the Assyrian word elmeshu, referring to a precious stone which was hard, and possibly white, or at least with an insignificant color, and from which whole rings were sometimes made. A few scholars have suggested that Yahalom may refer to diamonds, owing to their hardness, though the skill of cutting diamonds had not been discovered before the classical era. Although the Septuagint's Onychion is the Greek term for Onyx, Onyx was not mined prior to the era of classical Greece. Onyx is derived from the Greek for fingernail, due to the pink-white veining.
Leshem (in the Masoretic text) / Ligurios (in the Septuagint) - the names here seem to refer to places - Leshem and Liguria, respectively. Theophrastus mentions a mineral named liggourrion or lyngurium, meaning white urine, presumably in reference to its color, to which he ascribed an origin in the solidified urine of lynxes. Theophrastus and Pliny (who did not believe the stone existed) described the Ligurios as having certain electrical properties, which a number of scholars have taken to imply that it referred to amber, though both authors described that as a different stone. Amber was one of the first items to have been discovered to have electrical properties. The Midrash suggests that the mineral had a color similar to the white of antimony. Putting these details together, scholars draw the conclusion that it must have been similar to the pale color of natural gold (as opposed to the color known as gold). Modern translations use either amber or jacinth.
Sebo (in the Masoretic text) / Achates (in the Septuagint) - Achates definitely refers to agate, and Sebo may be cognate with the Assyrian term Subu, meaning agate. Agates were common in Egypt and Assyria, and were regarded as a potent talisman.
Ahlamah (in the Masoretic text) / Amethystos (in the Septuagint) - Amethystos refers to Amethyst, a purple mineral which was believed to protect against getting drunk from alcohol (Amethyst's name refers to this belief, and literally translates as not intoxicating), and was commonly used in Egypt. Ahlamah appears to be derived from a term meaning strong, though it may equally be derived from Ahlamu, a place where Amethysts were found; in the Babylonian Targum.
Tarshish (in the Masoretic text) / Chrysolithos (in the Septuagint) - in some other places the Septuagint instead has Anthrax (meaning Coal) where the Masoretic reads Tarshish. Chrysolithos does not refer specifically to Chrysolite, which was named much later, but is an adjective which translates as gold-stone, meaning either that it was golden, or that it contained flecks of gold. With golden flecks it could refer to lapis lazuli, which would fit the Targums' description of the gem being the color of the sea. As a golden material if translucent, it could refer to topaz or to amber, and since Chrysolithos came to mean Topaz in particular by the classical era, some scholars favor this as being the most likely use, though it would be jarring for there to be two different translucent yellow gemstones so close to one another on the breastplate. If an opaque golden material, it could refer to a yellow form of Jasper or of serpentine, which were commonly used in Egypt and Babylon.
Shoham (in the Masoretic text) / Beryllios (in the Septuagint) - in some other places the Septuagint instead has Onychion, or Smaragdos, or the phrase leek-green stone, where the Masoretic reads Shoham; Beryllios refers to Beryl but earlier to the blue-green color of the sea, Onychion refers to Onyx, and Smaragdos literally means green stone and refers to a bright columnar crystal (either Beryl or rock crystal). Onyx is an opaque and banded stone, while Smaragdos is translucent, and Beryl is cloudy, and all these come in several colors. Shoham could be derived from the Assyrian word Samtu, meaning dark or cloudy; it could be derived from the Arabic word meaning pale, in which case it fits more with Onyx and certain forms of Beryl, excluding the Emerald, with Heliodor being the form of Beryl fitting the leek green description; it could be derived from the Arabic word musahham, meaning striped garment, and therefore very definitely describing something like Onyx; or it could be a place name, for example there is a place in the Yemen named Soheim. Jewish tradition generally favors leek-green Beryl (Heliodor) as the likely meaning of Shoham, though scholars think it is more likely to be Malachite, which can be green enough to be compared to Smaragdos and the blue-green color of the sea, is cloudy enough to be compared to a cloudy form of Beryl, and is striped and opaque enough to be confused for a form of Onyx.
Yashfeh (in the Masoretic text) / Iaspis (in the Septuagint) - scholars suspect that Yasepheh may be the original reading. Although Yasepheh and Iaspis are cognate to Jasper, they don't quite have the same meaning; while Jasper is usually red, the mineral which the Greeks called Iaspis was generally a richly green one (the most prized form of Jasper), and scholars think this is most likely to be the color referred to by Yasepheh; the ambiguity of the term is present in the Targums, where the jewel is variously identified as a ruby (which is red), as a hyacinth (which is yellow), or as an emerald (which is green).
Ancient traditional birthstones are society-based birthstones. The table below contains many stones which are popular choices, often reflecting Polish tradition.
Gregorian calendar has poems matching each month with its birthstone. These are
traditional stones of English-speaking societies. Tiffany & Co. published these
poems "of unknown author" for the first time in a pamphlet in 1870.
15th- 20th century
By her who in this month (January) is born
No gem save garnets should be worn;
They will ensure her constancy,
True friendship, and fidelity.
The February-born shall find
Sincerity and peace of mind,
Freedom from passion and from care,
If they an amethyst will wear.
Who in this world of ours their eyes
In March first open shall be wise,
In days of peril firm and brave,
And wear a bloodstone to their grave.
She who from April dates her years,
Diamonds shall wear, lest bitter tears
For vain repentance flow; this stone,
Emblem of innocence, is known.
Who first beholds the light of day
In spring's sweet flowery month of May
And wears an emerald all her life
Shall be a loved and happy wife.
Who comes with summer to this earth,
And owes to June her hour of birth,
With ring of agate on her hand
Can health, wealth, and long life command.
The glowing ruby shall adorn,
Those who in July are born;
Then they'll be exempt and free
From love's doubts and anxiety.
Wear a sardonyx or for thee,
No conjugal felicity;
The August-born without this stone,
`Tis said, must live unloved and lone.
A maiden born when September leaves
Are rustling in September's breeze,
A sapphire on her brow should bind
`Twill cure diseases of the mind.
October's child is born for woe,
And life's vicissitudes must know,
But lay an opal on her breast,
And hope will lull those woes to rest.
Who first comes to this world below
With drear November's fog and snow,
Should prize the topaz's amber hue,
Emblem of friends and lovers true.
If cold December gave you birth,
The month of snow and ice and mirth,
Place on your hand a turquoise blue;
Success will bless whatever you do.
In 1912, in an effort to standardize birthstones, the American National Association of Jewelers met in Kansas and officially adopted a list. The Jewelry Industry Council of America updated the list in 1952 by adding alexandrite to June and citrine to November; specifying pink tourmaline for October; replacing December's lapis with zircon; and switching the primary/alternative gems in March. The most recent change occurred in October 2002, with the addition of tanzanite as a December birthstone.
Garnet, the birthstone for January, signifies eternal friendship and trust and
is the perfect gift for a friend. Garnet, derived from the word granatum, means
seed, and is called so because of the gemstone's resemblance to a pomegranate
seed. References to the gemstone dates back to 3100 B.C., when the Egyptians
used garnets as inlays jewelry. Garnet is the name of a group of minerals that
comes in a rainbow of colors, from the deep red of the pyrope garnet to the
vibrant green of tsavorites. Today, the most important sources for garnet are
Africa, Sri Lanka, and India.
Amethyst, the birthstone of February, the gemstone believed by ancient Greeks
and Romans to ward off the intoxicating powers of Bacchus, also is said to keep
the wearer clear-headed and quick-witted. Throughout history, the gemstone has
been associated with many myths, legends, religions, and numerous cultures.
English regalia were even decorated with amethysts during the Middle Ages to
symbolize royalty. Amethyst is purple quartz, a beautiful blend of violet and
red that can be found in every corner of the earth. Historically, the finest
amethyst were found in Russia and were featured in much royal European jewelry.
Today, while Brazil is the primary source of this gemstone, the fine material
can be found elsewhere, especially in Zambia.
The two birthstones for March are aquamarine and bloodstone:
The name aquamarine is derived from the Latin word aqua, meaning water, and
marina, meaning the sea. This gemstone was believed to protect sailors, as well
as to guarantee a safe voyage. The serene color of aquamarine is said to cool
the temper, allowing the wearer to remain calm and levelheaded. Its pale, cool
color beautifully complements spring and summer wardrobes. Aquamarine is most
often light in tone and ranges from greenish blue to blue-green; the color
usually is more intense in larger stones. This gemstone is mined mainly in
Brazil, but also is found in Nigeria, Madagascar, Zambia, Pakistan, and
The second birthstone for March is bloodstone, dark-green jasper flecked with
vivid red spots of iron oxide. This ancient stone was used by the Babylonians
to make seals and amulets and was believed to have healing powers — especially
for blood disorders. It is sometimes called the martyr's stone as legend tells
that it was created when drops of Christ's blood stained some jasper at the foot
of the cross. Generally found embedded in rocks or in riverbeds as pebbles,
primary sources for this stone are India, Brazil, and Australia.
As the April birthstone, diamonds are the ideal gift for a loved one. During the
Middle Ages, diamonds were thought to hold healing powers and to cure ailments
stemming from the pituitary gland and brain. By heating the crystal and taking
it to bed, it was thought to draw out the harmful toxins that were crippling the
body. It was believed that diamonds could also have an effect on an individual’s
balance and clarity and could boost their energy when combined with other
crystals like amethyst.
As the birthstone for May, the emerald, a symbol of rebirth, is believed to
grant the owner foresight, good fortune, and youth. Emerald, derived from the
word smaragdus, meaning green in Greek, was mined in Egypt as early as 330 B.C.
Today, most of the world’s emeralds are mined in Colombia, Brazil, Afghanistan,
and Zambia. The availability of high-quality emerald is limited; consequently,
treatments to improve clarity are performed regularly.
June counts three gems as birthstones, pearl, Alexandrite, and moonstone:
Historically, pearls have been used as an adornment for centuries. They were
one of the favorite gem materials of the Roman Empire; later in Tudor England,
the 1500s were known as the pearl age. Pearls are unique as they are the only
gems from living sea creatures and require no faceting or polishing to reveal
their natural beauty. In the early 1900s, the first successful commercial
culturing of round saltwater pearls began. Since the 1920s, cultured pearls have
almost completely replaced natural pearls in the market.
A relatively modern gem, Alexandrite, was first discovered in Russia in 1831
during the reign of its namesake, Czar Alexander II, and is an extremely rare
chrysoberyl with chameleon-like qualities. Its color is a lovely green in both
daylight and fluorescent light; it changes color to a purplish red in
incandescent light. Due to its rarity, some jewelers stock synthetic versions
of this enchanting gemstone.
The third birthstone for June is the Moonstone. It was given its name by the
Roman natural historian Pliny, who wrote that moonstone's appearance altered
with the phases of the moon — a belief that held until well after the sixteenth
century. A phenomenal gemstone, moonstones show a floating play of light
(called adularescence) and sometimes show either a multirayed star or a cat's
eye. Considered a sacred stone in India, moonstones often are displayed on a
background of yellow (a sacred color) and are believed to encapsulate within the
stone a spirit whose purpose is to bring good fortune. Part of the family of
minerals called feldspar, moonstone occurs in many igneous and metamorphic rocks
and comes in a variety of colors such as green, blue, peach, and champagne. The
most prized moonstones are from Sri Lanka; India, Australia, the United States,
Mayanmar, and Madagascar are also sources.
There’s no better way to demonstrate your love than by giving a ruby in
celebration of a July birthday. Rubies arouse the senses, stir the imagination,
and are said to guarantee health, wisdom, wealth and success in love. Ruby is a
variety of the gems species corundum. It is harder than any natural gemstone
except diamond, which means a ruby is durable enough for everyday wear.
Fine-quality ruby is extremely rare, and the color of the gem is most important
to its value. The most prized color is a medium or medium dark vivid red or
slightly purplish red. If the gem is too light or has too much purple or orange,
it will be called a fancy-color sapphire.
Two birthstones are available for August birthdays: Peridot and Sardonyx:
Peridot is said to host magical powers and healing properties to protect against
nightmares and to bring the wearer power, influence, and a wonderful year. As
peridot is a gemstone that forms deep inside the Earth and brought to the
surface by volcanoes, in Hawaii, peridot symbolizes the tears of Pele, the
goddess of fire and volcanoes. Today, most of the peridot supply comes from
Arizona; other sources are China, Myanmar, and Pakistan. This gemstone comes in
several color variations ranging from yellowish green to brown, but most
consumers are attracted to the bright lime greens and olive greens. Peridot, in
smaller sizes, often is used in beaded necklaces and bracelets.
Sardonyx is a form of onyx and is recognized by its layers of reddish brown and
white banding. It was popular with the ancient Greeks and Romans who carried
into battle talismans of sardonyx engraved with images of heroes such as Mars or
Hercules, believing that this would bring courage and victory. Because of its
attractive banding, sardonyx has long been used to fashion cameos (carved raised
figures) and intaglios (the reverse of cameos). This gemstone is found
throughout the world. The most attractive specimens are found in India, but
material also is mined in Czechoslovakia, Brazil, Uruguay, Germany, and in the
Sapphire, the September birthstone, has been popular since the Middle Ages and,
according to folklore, will protect your loved ones from envy and harm.
Medieval clergy wore sapphires to symbolize heaven, while commoners thought the
gem attracted heavenly blessings. Blue sapphires range from very light to very
dark greenish or violetish blue, as well as various shades of pure blue. The
most prized colors are a medium to medium dark blue or slightly violetish blue.
Sapphire is a variety of the gem species corundum and occurs in all colors of
the rainbow. Pink, purple, green, orange, or yellow corundum are known by
their color (pink sapphire, green sapphire).
October is another month with two birthstone choices – Tourmaline and Opal:
Tourmaline has become a favorite gemstone among jewelry designer, and gem
collectors the world over. Since it is available in a wide variety of colors, it
is ideally suited to almost anyone's taste. Tourmaline also is known for
displaying several colors in the same gemstone. These bi-color or tri-color
gems are formed in many combinations; gemstones with clear color distinctions
are highly prized. One multi-color variety is known as watermelon tourmaline,
and features green, pink, and white colors bands; to resemble its namesake, the
gemstone is cut into thin slices having a pink center, white ring, and green
edge. Tourmaline is found in many localities including Brazil, Afghanistan,
East Africa, and the USA.
The name opal derives from the Greek Opallos, meaning "to see a change (of
color)." Opals range in color from milky white to black with flashes of yellow,
orange, green, red, and blue. An opal's beauty is the product of contrast
between its color play and its background. Opal is a formation of
non-crystalline silica gel that seeped into crevices in the sedimentary strata.
Through time and nature's heating and molding processes, the gel hardened into
the form of opals. The opal is composed of particles closely packed in spherical
arrangements. When packed together in a regular pattern, a three-dimensional
array of spaces are created that give opal its radiance.
Two gems are appropriate for November birthdays - Topaz and Citrine.
Topaz is a gemstone available in a rich rainbow of colors. Prized for several thousand years in antiquity, all yellow gems in antiquity were called topaz. Often confused with citrine quartz (yellow) and smoky quartz (brown), quartz and topaz are separate and unrelated mineral species. The most prized color of topaz is called Imperial topaz after the Russian Czars of the 1800s and features a magnificent orange body color with pinkish undertones. Topaz also comes in yellow, pink, purple, orange, and the many popular blue tones.
Citrine, the other birthstone for November is known as the "healing quartz".
This golden gemstone is said to support vitality and health while encouraging
and guiding hope, energy and warmth within the wearer. Citrine can be found in a
variety of shades ranging from pastel yellow to dark brownish orange. It is one
of the most affordable of gemstones and plentiful in nature. Citrine is found
most frequently in Brazil, Bolivia, and Spain.
The three birthstones associated with December are Tanzanite, Zircon, and Turquoise:
Discovered in the late 1960s in Tanzania, and found exclusively in this tiny
area of the world, tanzanite exhibits a rich violet-blue color for which the
gemstone is treasured; often it is heat-treated to achieve this color. Colors
range from blue to purple, and tanzanites that are medium dark in tone, vivid in
saturation, and slightly violet blue command premium prices. As tanzanite can
be less expensive than sapphire, it often was purchased as an alternative.
However, it has increased in popularity and now is valued more for its own
beauty and brilliance than as a sapphire substitute.
Derived from the Arabic words zar and gun, meaning gold and color, zircon is
found in a wide range of colors such as: blue, yellow, orange, brown, green,
colorless, and red (the most prized color). For many years colorless zircon was
used to imitate diamonds. Folk wisdom grants zircon the power to relieve pain,
whet the appetite, protect travelers from disease and injury, to ensure a warm
welcome, and to prevent nightmares guaranteeing a deep, tranquil sleep. Major
sources of zircon are the Chanthaburi area of Thailand, the Palin area of
Cambodia, and the southern part of Vietnam.
The name turquoise, from the French expression Pierre tourques or Turkish stone,
originated in the thirteenth century and describes one of the oldest known
gemstones. Turquoise varies in color from greenish blue, through robin's
egg-blue, to sky blue shades and its transparency ranges from translucent to
opaque. Turquoise is plentiful and is available in a wide range of sizes. It is
most often used for beads, cabochons, carvings, and inlays. Although its
popularity fluctuates in fashion, it is a perennial favorite in the American
"Birthstones." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
"Birthstones by Month." Birthstone. American Gem Society, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.