The History, Mythology and Meaning of the Twelve Birthstones

March 15, 2023 6 min read

The origin of the birthstone tradition dates back to biblical times. In the Book of Exodus, Moses’ brother Aaron was fabled to have a breastplate containing 12 different gemstones, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel.

Many years later, a 1st century historian made the link between the 12 stones, the 12 months of the year and the 12 zodiac signs. Following this, Christians began to make use of the stones, believing in their powers and their connection to the divine – a tradition that continued for hundreds of years.

However, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the practice of wearing a single stone – according to your birth month – became popular, first in Germany and Poland and soon throughout the world.

Since then, birthstones have fascinated everyone, from the casual gem enthusiast to the seasoned jeweller, with the list of birthstones evolving massively since that time. As such, there’s usually more than one birthstone for each month (which is handy if you don’t like the one you’re stuck with).

That being said, here is a list of our favourite birthstones from January to December, including some of the history and lore that makes them so spellbinding.

the twelve birthstones

1. Garnet – January

Derived from the Latin word garanatus – meaning ‘seed like’ – the garnet was named due to its resemblance to the shining red seeds found in pomegranates.

In Greek mythology, Hades gifted a pomegranate to Persephone before she embarked on a long journey, to ensure her safe return to him. It’s mythologised that the pomegranate seeds taken by Persephone became the garnets we have on earth today.

As such, the pomegranate became a commonly exchanged gift between Ancient Greek lovers, and by association the garnet became known as a symbol of passion and eternal love.

Today, the deep red stone is thought to boost the strength of relationships, whether they’re romantic or platonic.

2. Amethyst – February

As a form of quartz, amethyst gets its stunning purple colour from the earth’s radiation and trace amounts of iron found in the ground.

Coming from the Greek word amethystos meaning ‘not intoxicated’, the Ancient Greeks believed that amethysts were gifts from the god of wine and could help to prevent intoxication from alcohol.

Though this violet quartz has had numerous associations throughout history, especially with wealth and royalty, today many believe in its ability to promote peace, balance mood and – of course – prevent excessive intoxication. 

3. Aquamarine – March

Combining the Latin word for water (aqua) with the word for sea (marina), the name of this gem translates to ‘seawater’ thanks to its gorgeous sea-blue hue.

Unsurprisingly, this nautical gem has had a strong association with seafaring throughout its history, with the Ancient Greeks believing it would encourage calm waters and ensure the safety of sailors who kept the gem on board.

Later in history, aquamarine gained a reputation for supporting the success of relationships and marriages, first by the Egyptians and then in the medieval period. Today, aquamarine is thought to promote calm and trust – two qualities that support the gem’s historical uses. 

4. Crystal – April

Though diamond is traditionally considered April’s birthstone, the very similar crystal quartz has become a familiar alternative – in large part, because they’re more affordable.

Associated with healing and promoting health, crystal quartz has been used throughout history in healing rituals and ceremonies. Today, many still believe in its powerful healing properties and its propensity to restore health, cleanse energy and release tension.

5. Green onyx – May

Green onyx is formed when quartz crystals – made from silica dioxide – are layered with a substance known as chalcedony. It’s this chemical that gives green onyx its bold emerald hue.

Associated with focus, motivation and clarity, archaeologists have also discovered this gem’s historical association with protection: onyx has been found in amulets on Ancient Roman battlefields as well as embedded in swords, shields and armour. 

6. Pearl/moonstone – June

The two birthstones for June are moonstone and pearl: the two gems most closely associated with the moon. As a result, pearl and moonstone are thought to share many of the same properties and have both been historically linked to love and wealth, in addition to qualities such as femininity and balance.

However, a significant difference between the two June gemstones is how they’re formed.

Pearl is the only birthstone not formed inside the earth – it’s technically not even a stone. Instead, pearls are products formed by a mollusc’s natural defence mechanism.

When something like a piece of shell – or a small organism – finds its way into the mollusc’s shell, it begins to coat the invader in a substance known as ‘mother of pearl’ until a complete pearl has been made. Moonstone on the other hand is formed from the compounds albite and orthoclase and is mined from the earth. 

7. Ruby – July

In Sanskrit, the name for ruby translates to ruler of jewels, which is fitting considering this precious gem’s status across the world, as a stone thought to encourage love, passion and protection.

As a type of corundum – formed mainly of oxygen and aluminium atoms – ruby gets its lustrous red glow from a chemical called chromium. This substance also gives rubies a fluorescence that makes them appear to glow from within, forming much of its mythology through the ages. 

In Ancient Greece, it was believed they contained an internal fire and could even be used to boil water more quickly.

In the East, on the other hand, rubies were thought to contain the blood of the earth and could provide protection during battle. As such, it was common practice for rubies to be embedded in the skin of soldiers. 

8. Peridot – August

Fondly referred to as the ‘space gem’, August’s birthstone has been found on the moon and has even travelled to earth via meteorites from outer space, though the stone is also found underground in volcanic rock.

Since Ancient Egypt, the stone has been associated with the extra-terrestrial, with the Egyptians believing the stone was brought to earth via exploding – or rather, shooting – stars.

As one of the stones worn on the Biblical breastplate that began the concept of birthstones, peridot was called chrysolite in Biblical times, a word that translates to ‘golden stone’. 

Historically believed to ward off evil spirits, today the stone is associated with fending away negativity and bringing happiness to the wearer.

9. Iolite – September

Affectionately referred to as the water sapphire, Iolite was historically known as the Viking Compass stone. 

During the Scandinavians’ seafaring journey to ‘The New World’ – or the US, as it’s known today – it’s said that Iolite helped the Vikings determine the position of the sun and hence their location, enabling them to stay on track and reach the little explored continent.

In addition to its navigational properties, as a particularly hard gemstone Iolite is thought to encourage inner strength and self-confidence in the wearer.

10. Opal – October

Since their discovery, opals have been lauded for their multicoloured quality.

This rainbow effect is created when light shines through the millions of prisms contained within the rock, refracting different wavelengths that produce the many colours found in this gemstone.

Most of opal’s mythology comes from the aborigines, since the vast majority of the world’s opals are found in Australia. They believed that, when the world’s creator stepped on the earth, rainbows formed and touched the ground where his feet were; under this spot, they believed opals formed.

Today, these dazzling stones are associated with good luck, hope and innocence.

11. Citrine – November

Because of Citrine’s fiery hue, the Ancient Egyptians associated this gem with their sun god – Ra.

Ancient Egyptian archaeologists have discovered countless talismans carved from this amber-coloured quartz, and in Ancient Greece the stone was similarly used in the carving of religious icons, highlighting Citrine’s divine significance throughout history.

Later, Citrine was thought to encourage financial success, earning it the title of “The Merchant’s Stone”. To this day, Citrine is believed to promote wealth, as well as peace and vitality.

12. Amazonite – December

Most believe that amazonite was named as a result of its discovery in Brazil – home to part of the Amazon river and rainforest, which shares the gem’s blue-green hues.

However, the gem is also linked to a tribe referred to in mythology as ‘the Amazonians’. 

An all-female tribe rumoured to have lived along the Amazon river over 10,000 years ago, it’s thought that the tribe – which may or may not have existed – embedded amazonite in their battle-wear for protection.

Today, people still believe in the amazonite gem’s protective qualities, and the stone is also thought to have the power to soothe the soul.

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