Ways to Choose a Birthstone

“My birthstone is emerald,” a potential customer recently told me. “But I don’t like green,” she continued, “so I never buy gemstones.” Do we, and our customers, have choices when it comes to selecting a birthstone? What can we do when we don’t like or can’t afford the gemstone assigned to our month of birth? What should we suggest to our customers when they ask for help in selecting the “right” birthstone?

A standard list of acceptable birthstones is used today, but those gemstones were arbitrarily selected many years ago. I did some research and learned that there is more than one way to choose a birthstone.

People originally chose which gemstone to wear based on its color and the magical or healing powers associated with that color. The color green, for instance, was associated with spring. Spring and green symbolized faith and fertility. Emerald then became one of the green stones representing spring, a time of birth. Because of the meanings attached to green, people began using emeralds to help lessen the pains of childbirth. (Gemstones for the other seasons are ruby for Summer, sapphire for Autumn, and diamond for Winter.)

Gemstone folklore later came from legends and mythology. An example of this was the perception that amethyst prevented drunkenness. That belief started with a Greek myth about the wine god, Bacchus. Amethyst was a beautiful and innocent young woman condemned to die by Bacchus. The goddess Diana turned Amethyst into a white crystal to protect her from Bacchus. Bacchus poured wine on the crystal, staining it purple.

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About 1300 B.C. some gemstones acquired religious significance. In Exodus 28:17-21, specific gemstones were associated with each of the twelve tribes of Israel. People of Jewish heritage may choose their birthstones based on their tribal names. Historians have complied several lists of which stone goes with each name. The lists vary, according to how each researcher interprets the ancient names. Paul E. Desautels, author of The Gem Kingdom, offers the following list, which uses modern gemstone names:

Tribe Gemstone
Reuben Carnelian
Simeon Peridot
Levi Emerald
Judah Garnet
Issachar Lapis lazuli
Zebulun Rock crystal
Joseph Zircon*
Benjamin Agate
Dan Amethyst
Naphtali Citrine
Gad Onyx
Assher Jasper

Long before the modern twelve-month calendar was developed, astrologers transferred the early religious symbolism of gemstones to the twelve signs of the zodiac. The gemstone associated with each zodiacal sign has varied through the centuries. For example, diamond was assigned to Libra by the Babylonians, to Cancer by the Greeks, and to Aries by the Byzantines.

The modern list is as follows:

Capricorn Ruby
Aquarius Garnet
Pisces Amethyst
Aries Bloodstone (Jasper)
Taurus Sapphire
Gemini Agate
Cancer Emerald
Leo Onyx
Virgo Carnelian
Libra Chrysolite (Peridot)
Scorpio Aquamarine
Sagittarius Topaz

Christianity later influenced the symbolism of gemstones. George Kunz, in his book The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, says specific gemstones were also associated with the twelve guardian angels and the twelve apostles. He offers the following lists.

Month Angel Gemstone Apostle Gemstone
January Gabriel Onyx Simon Peter Jasper
February Barchiel Jasper Andrew Ruby
March Malchediel Ruby James/John Emerald
April Ashmodei Topaz Philip Carnelian
May Amriel Ruby Bartholomew Peridot
June Muriel Emerald Thomas Aquamarine
July Verchiel Sapphire Matthew Topaz
August Hamatiel Diamond James Sardonyx
September Tsuriel Zircon* Thaddeus Chrysoprase
October Bariel Agate Simon Zircon*
November Adnachiel Amethyst Matthias Amethyst
December Humiel Aquamarine Paul Sapphire

Other authors have compiled their own lists. There is currently a set of guardian angels on the market that have “birthstones” mounted in them. The manufacturers of the angels used the modern list of birthstone colors (given later in this article) rather than any historic or traditional list.

Kunz also says that birthstones may be selected based on the day of birth, as follows:

Sunday Topaz
Monday Pearl
Tuesday Ruby
Wednesday Amethyst
Thursday Sapphire
Friday Carnelian
Saturday Turquoise

By the 18th century, gemstones were associated with specific months. Europeans, beginning in Poland, wore each month’s stone during that month. This meant that each person had to own twelve gemstones. Later, they began wearing only the gem representing the month of their birth. That tradition continues today.

The stones associated with each month have varied for several reasons. Gemstones were first named according to their colors. For example, all red stones, including garnets and rubies, were called carbuncles. Red was the color for January, so people born in January wore their choice of carbuncle as birthstones.

A second reason for variety was the fact that people in each country chose birthstones that differed from those selected in other countries. As the idea of wearing birthstones became more popular, people began selecting less-expensive alternative gemstones, leading to more diversity.

In 1912, the National Association of Jewelers adopted the standardized list that is widely used today.

January Garnet
February Amethyst
March Aquamarine, Bloodstone
April Diamond
May Emerald
June Pearl, Alexandrite, Moonstone
July Ruby
August Peridot, Sardonyx
September Sapphire
October Opal, Tourmaline
November Topaz
December Turquoise, Zircon*

* Zircon is not the same as cubic zirconia, which is a synthetic stone.

Imitation gemstones may be chosen based on the birthstone colors as follows:

January Dark Red
February Purple
March Pale Blue
April White (Clear)
May Bright Green
June Cream
July Red
August Pale Green
September Deep Blue
October Variegated
November Yellow
December Sky Blue

Help your customers choose the “right” birthstone, by explaining that they have more choices than the month of their birth. They can select birthstones according to their zodiacal sign, the day of the week or season of the year in which they were born, or by religious affiliation. There is more than one way to choose a birthstone!

Copyright © Sandra I. Smith 1996