For ancient civilizations, the twelve gemstones (now attached to the calendar year for sentimental reasons) were considered to be the earthbound manifestations of great power. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, Incas and Aztecs all strongly believed in the power of gemstones as talismans and amulets. To them, gems were guardians with numerous attributes, curative powers and could even help to 'convoy' the soul to peace in the afterlife.
Ground pearls were added to Cleopatra's wine, so she could drink in their beauty. Sunglasses made of emeralds were worn by Emperor Nero when he watched the gladiators doing battle in the coliseum. In Medieval Europe it was believed that an aquamarine in the mouth provided for safe questioning of the devil and that the wearing of a topaz protected against sudden death. Gems were thought to heal illness, ward off poisons, and bring true love. The custom of giving and receiving these stones is a poignant vestige to the efforts of humanity to comprehend the mysteries of the universe and to summon its aid to safeguard our loved ones.
Associating the months of the year with a specific gemstone has a long history. The most commonly accepted and earliest known link is the 'Holy Breastplate of Aaron'. Aaron, the brother of Moses, helped to lead the Israelites from Egypt. The breastplate was for religious ceremonies. It was decorated with twelve gemstones, four rows with three gemstones in each. The gemstones were laid out in the following pattern :
The gemstones set upon the breastplate, which is described in Chapters 28 and 39 of the Old Testament, were to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve gemstones on the breastplate have also been associated with the twelve months of the year and the signs of the zodiac.
The custom of giving and wearing birthstone jewelry actually began in Poland in the 1700's. Various lists of birthstones apparently evolved from Aaron's sacred garment, and found sponsors in the jewelry and gemstone trade associations by the twentieth century. The unabashedly romantic Victorians used birthstones as a subtle means to communicate. Messages of love and devotion were spelled out on jewelry. A ring for a sweetheart might have been set with the gemstones Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, and Ruby, thus encoding the sentiment 'DEAR'. In 1912, The National Jewelers Association in the United States officially adopted the list of birthstones with which we are now familiar.
The ancient Persians imagined sapphire, September's birthstone, to be a chip off of the precious pedestal on which the earth balances and whose reflections create the colours of the sky. Peering into this gem it is easy to imagine the truth in the tale... or is it only an aluminum oxide crystal with traces of iron, titanium, vanadium, or chrome, wrought by the force of nature? The peculiar magic attributed to gemstones is a matter of personal opinion. All gems do share a true and transcendent power... they all command our gaze. They escort us into the depths and facets of their uniquely beautiful and ordered universe. Gemstones gather light and reflect it back upon us in scintillating dances. Gemstones forge a link that invisibly yet inextricably bonds us to our loved ones and the many moments and special occasions of our lifetimes. They are the magical keeper of our stories and histories.
Scientifically, the power of a gemstone can be explained. Jewels play with the electromagnetic vibrations that we call 'light'. Gemstones captivating properties are optical - variations of rich colour, rainbow scintillation, luster, 'dancing' fire, luminescence, and playful opalescence. The 'seeing' can be mesmerizing.
Light travels in waves that are perceived by the human eye as all of the different colours of the spectrum -red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. A colourless gemstone will absorb all of these light waves. Gemologists describe the colour of a gemstone as 'the characteristic colour it presents in the absence of impurities'. In many cases a gemstones' 'personality' can be linked to its impurities, just like our own signature characteristics. Chrome, iron, cobalt, titanium, manganese, nickel and vanadium often are present as serendipitous trace elements in gemstones. Chemical elements absorb different wavelengths of light thereby each gemstone is manifested with its own defining colour. The presence of trace compounds explains why so many gemstones - diamonds, sapphires, garnets, tourmalines, topaz and zircon can present a dazzling rainbow of hues.
The precise cutting of a gemstone also affects its colour. The way the light travels through the jewel is altered. Most gemstone cuts can be defined in one of two categories. 'Brilliant Cut' stones feature 'kite' or 'triangular' shaped facets. A full brilliant cut sports at least 58 precisely angled and sized facets, allowing the stone to exhibit the most spectacular light show possible. 'Step Cut' gems feature descending parallel planes of rectangular shaped facets. The timeless and elegant step-cut is most often reserved for magnificently coloured or transparent gems that require little to enhance their perfection. Other gems with unique or unusual qualities are often 'Cabochon' cut. The Cab Cut (distinguished by its smooth and polished dome shape) best enhances inclusions or internal features of solids, gases, and liquids, which create effects such as the 'play of colour' within an opal, or the distinct six - pointed star within a Star Sapphire or Ruby.
Birthstones, like all gems are classified by gemologists according to their constituent mineral composition. Deep within the planet's core, extreme pressure and temperature instantaneously crystallize carbon atoms into diamonds. Rubies and sapphires hail from the 'corundum group' and are all aluminum oxide crystals. The signature elements of aluminum, beryllium, silicon, and oxygen define members of the 'beryl family', which includes emerald and aquamarine. The mineral classifications are a humble reminder of a gemstone's origin, but also the beginning of an awe-inspiring transformation. Time and powerful natural forces give birth to a gem that literally becomes a cut and polished offspring of Earth itself.
Gems begin their journey towards their destiny at the captive mercy of natures undeniable forces. Relentlessly tossed by ocean waves or spued forth from the mouth of a volcano, or revealed by a minerís pick axe. Industrialized diamond prospecting requires enormous capital and epitomizes methodical process. Even in this day and age many gemstone deposits are still discovered purely by accident, adding to their allure and enchantment.
Every birthstone is a book, whose tale will never end. The story begins with its parent rock, its passage to discovery, its belabored enhancements in the seasoned hands of a gem cutter, creative setting by a jeweller... and then always to embark upon a new chapter of accumulated lore each time the gem is given or received as a sentimental token.