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Birthstones: Making Time Precious
A piece of jewelry containing the recipient’s birthstone makes a thoughtful gift. Explore the origins of the gems’ place in the popular imagination with Groupon’s guide.
The tradition of birthstones seems as though it ought to be ancient. In fact, the list of birthstones most common in North America today—garnets for January, amethysts for February, and so on—wasn’t set until 1912, when an American group called the National Association of Jewelers decided on one 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, although associating jewels with specific months seems to have popped up only as 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 Italy sought to enhance the assigned powers of birthstones by adorning them with figures—a bear on an amethyst to prevent drunkenness, for instance, or jasper engraved with hunting scenes to drive off devils.
- In a way, July and September share a birthstone. Rubies and sapphires are both varieties of the mineral corundum.