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Birthstones: Making Time Precious
A piece of jewelry containing the recipient’s birthstone can make a thoughtful gift. Explore the origins of these gems’ place in the popular imagination with Groupon’s guide.
Though often assumed to be quite ancient, the canon of birthstones we’re most familiar with is fairly modern. In fact, the list wasn’t set until 1912, when an American group called the National Association of Jewelers decided on a single, unified calendar. Before that, things were less organized. In The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, published just after, George Frederick Kunz catalogued eight different systems of assignment, including ancient Roman, Arab, and Russian schema.
Kunz believed, however—as some historians still do—that the concept could ultimately be traced back to the Biblical book of Exodus. In it, the high priest, Aaron, is described as wearing a ceremonial breastplate inlaid with 12 stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Later, theological writers connected these gems with the 12 signs of the zodiac. Associating jewels with specific months, however, didn’t arise until personal jewelry became popular in Renaissance-era Europe.
The idea of precious stones as protective amulets is an old one. In India’s tradition of Ayurvedic medicine, their functions are especially well defined. Nine precious stones are linked to nine celestial bodies, partly due to similarities in the light they give off. Healers might advise patients to wear these stones to counteract the effects of a planet’s “weak” energy or to amplify the effects of a “strong” planet.
- Cultures including ancient Egypt and Renaissance-era Italy sought to enhance the assigned powers of birthstones by adorning them with figures—a bear on an amethyst was thought to prevent drunkenness, for instance, while jasper engraved with hunting scenes would drive off devils.
- In a way, July and September share a birthstone. Rubies and sapphires are actually both varieties of the same mineral, corundum.