GeneralArts & Culture

What are birthstones?

Birthstones are precious and semi-precious gems that signify the specific month that a person was born. The official history of birthstones remains a little hazy, but the practice of using gems to signify a person’s birth can be found throughout the world across many different cultures.

Western traditions

Photo of a deep purple gem
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Western cultures use birthstones to signify the month that a person was born. The exact history of this practice is unknown, but there are a few theories as to where the tradition comes from. The most popular comes from biblical times. In the Bible, the book of Exodus describes the breastplate that Aaron wore, which was considered sacred and worn only by high priests in Israel. The breastplate contained 12 gems, and each signified one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Scholars realized that the number 12 is very important and can signify many things such as the sons of Israel, signs of the zodiac, and yes, the months of the year.

Eastern traditions

Ancient Venetian clock showing the zodiac and phases of the moon
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In China, birthstones are not chosen based on month, but rather by zodiac sign. By keeping the correct stone on your person, the powers of the gem can identify with your personality and bring stronger benefits. Each stone carries its own unique benefits.

In Indian culture, birthstones are based on the Navratna System in which each stone represents a specific planet plus the moon. Each planet provides different benefits. They can be assigned to a person like a birthstone based on the planets that were present during the time of birth but can also be worn to harness the power of the planets that are currently in position. It is advised that you check with a Vedic astrologer to determine the right gem to wear on a specific day. But be careful. Using unnatural or blemished stones or wearing them incorrectly can result in negative effects.

The official list

Various gemstones of different colors each held by tweezers in a half moon design
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While the stones used in Eastern traditions have remained much the same throughout time, Western birthstones based on month have varied. The only record of Aaron’s famous breastplate is from the Bible. People in that time did not have a complete understanding of mineral composition and, therefore, couldn’t describe the gems in a way that we understand today. They were mostly described by their colors, and the rest was left up to interpretation. For centuries, no one could agree on what specific gems made up the 12 birthstones.

The debate continued until 1912 when the American National Jewelers Association decided to stop the arguing once and for all. They sat down and compiled the official birthstone list, which is mostly how it remains today. There have been only two additions over the years: In 2002, tanzanite was added for December, and in 2016, spinel was added for August.

Wear your stone

Woman's hand arranging birthstones on a zodiac chart against a red background
Credit: Pixel-Shot / Shutterstock

Wearing your birthstone supposedly provides many benefits to the wearer. All birthstones are lucky, but each birthstone also carries its own unique benefits. For example, amethyst (February) is associated with peace, courage, and stability. It’s perfect for anyone born in the winter who might need a little extra warmth and strength.

Whether or not you believe in the magical powers of birthstones, they serve as a great representation of those we love. Birthstone jewelry is a popular gift for mothers to represent their children or extended family. People also identify with their birthstone with a sense of pride and uniqueness. Not everyone can be born in the same awesome month as you, so show off how lucky you are!