Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Birthstones: Contemporary History

(This is a sequel to a previous post: Birthstones: Early History. You don't need to read it to understand this post, but in case you were curious, there it is!)

Image courtesy Alice Mary Herden

While the early history of birthstones is fascinating (especially for closet occult nerds like me), it's more or less unrelated to birthstones as they're used today. The association of specific stones to specific Gregorian months can only be traced, with any certainty, to the 19th century.

In 1870, Tiffany & Co. published a set of poems (without attribution) that connected each month to a different personality failing or piece of bad luck and a corresponding stone that would guard against. They are as follows:

By her who in [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 whate'er you do.
Some claim that these poems predate Tiffany & Co., but as no record of them exists prior to the 1870 publication date, it's probably safe to assume that Tiffany released them as a marketing tool.

The premise of advertising is simple: convince you that you have a need, and then convince you that Product X will fit that need. Obviously these poems do just that. The date of the poems' release also coincides neatly with the Second Industrial Revolution as well as the rise of a middle class—a class of people with disposable income to spend.

In other words, birthstones as we know them today come into existence for the sole purpose of selling jewelry.

Whether inspired by the Tiffany & Co. poems or for other reasons, the American National Association of Jewelers met in Kansas City and put together the "official" list. This is the one most often used by jewelers and jewelry stores:

Birthstones (Kansas City, 1912)

However, this list has been revised a couple of times, As you can see, not much has changed.

Birthstones (Kansas City, 2002)

It's also important to note that Great Britain still maintains its own standards (determined by Britain's National Association of Goldsmiths). They're nearly identical to the Kansas City list, with a few exceptions. British goldsmiths never added alexandrite as an option for June, but they do offer alternatives to some of the more expensive stones on the list (rock crystal for April, chrysoprase for May, and carnelian for July). Lapis lazuli is also an alternative for September instead of December (while the British list also omits blue zircon as an option for December).

That said, the mystical origins of birthstones haven't been totally lost to time. Many people today choose their birthstone by their Sun sign rather than their birth month. Mineralogist G. F. Kunz assembled a whole host of different lists and associations (many of which I discussed in the "Early History" post) in a book called Curious Lore of Precious Stones in 1913. He devotes an entire chapter to "Planetary and Astral Influences of Precious Stones." One list of associations is taken from an old (though undated and unreferenced, probably dates back to the Renaissance and Europe) figure included in Chapter X, opposite page 342:
While most of the stones are the same as the Kansas list, you can see their placement has shifted in some cases. May's emerald now goes to the June and July sign of Cancer; September's sapphire is the April and May sign of Taurus, and so forth. He traces the same list back to ancient Persia, along with a set of unattributed poems (which I won't reproduce here).

On page 347 he also includes "an old Spanish list of the gems of the zodiacal signs" which he theorizes "represents Arabic tradition" and thus varies from the list above.
  • Aries: Crystal (presumably just plain quartz?)
  • Taurus: Ruby, Diamond
  • Gemini: Sapphire
  • Cancer: Agate, Beryl
  • Leo: Topaz
  • Virgo: Magnet (presumably magnetite or lodestone?)
  • Libra: Jasper
  • Scorpio: Garnet
  • Sagittarius: Emerald
  • Capricorn: Chalcedony
  • Aquarius: Amethyst
  • Pisces: [none given in text]
Numerous other associations are given as well: days of the week, constellations, fixed stars, planets, dreams, and more. However, that's more than I have time for here. Maybe later on in the series, but for now I'll focus on the stones in the Kansas City list from 2002. First up (and next entry in the series): January's birthstone, garnet.

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