38 Stones & Gems | Birthstones 101

64 Arts
image via the American Gem Trade Association

image via the American Gem Trade Association

Moving on from home decorating to decorating ourselves, it’s onward to the next art on this list:

38 Expert Knowledge of Stones and Gems

and going ahead and combining it with (because, really, why separate them?)

40 Valuing the Shape and Color of Stones

Despite the fact that I have serious issues with the way the word ‘expert’ is bandied about these days, let’s see what we can dig up about precious and semi-precious stones, starting with the first ones many of us likely encountered: out birthstones.

Matching stones with dates of birth (astrologically speaking, at least) goes back to biblical times, but the list we know as the birthstone guide only goes back to 1700’s Poland and was only set in stone–if you’ll pardon the pun–by the National Association of Jewelers in 1912. And while they don’t come right out and say it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t in an attempt to encourage more spending back in the day.

These poems were put out by the famous Tiffany & Co as early as 1870, though, so the practice of shopping by birthstone certainly isn’t new.

By her who in this month (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.

Old ideas for old stones, yes? But it does give us an idea of the “powers” or features they used to ascribe to the bits of mineral elevated to the status of gems.

Some stones have received an update over the years. March is now more popularly aquamarine, for instance, June usually a pearl or moonstone, August to peridot, and blue topaz and tanzanite often sub in for December’s turquoise. And for the curious, sardonyx is a form of onyx with red bands instead of the black we’re more used to seeing.

I used to be quite excited about diamond as my birthstone, when I was still young enough not to realize how ghastly expensive they are! Now that I’m older and know more about why those shiny bits of carbon are so expensive (and the grief these inflated costs cause to so many for so little, really), I’m far less enamored of them these days, preferring the alternate stone of white sapphire if I had to wear one at all.

Still, a well-cut stone sparkling in the sunlight is certainly beautiful.

And those cuts and shapes are what give the stones their final worth. You’ve probably heard of the 4 C’s of diamond buying, and they apply more or less to other stones as well.

Cut, contrary to popular opinion, refers to the number of facets the finished stone has, not it’s shape. The more facets, the more surfaces there are for light to bounce around upon, and the more sparkle your jewelry displays.

Color, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Generally the less color in a diamond the better, though clever marketing has made even black diamonds more sought after these days. In gemstones that are not usually white/clear, the depth of color is more a personal preference.

Clarity sounds a lot like color, but really it has to do with the natural character (or defects) of the stone: inclusions (deviations within the stone itself) and blemishes (flaws on the outside of the gem). It really goes hand-in-hand with cut, above, and how the light bounces around the stone.

Finally, Carat is simply the size–by weight–of a stone. A single carat equals 200 milligrams  and each carat is measured in points. Since there are 100 points in a carat, then each point weighs 2 milligrams. This is what they mean when you see a cocktail ring with lots of smaller stones or a bracelet with oodles of chips in it described not in total carat weight but in points.

Not all gems are evaluated by the same criteria and with the same scrutiny of diamonds, but it’s good to know the basics at the very least.

It’s worth noting, too, that these days it’s not at all uncommon to see lab-created stones right next to their natural counterparts in a jeweler’s case and the one way you’d know it is by looking at the price tag. Fact is, lab-created stones are exactly the same as the natural ones they mimic, not mere stand-ins like cubic zirconia was/is for diamonds in costume jewelry, and might even be better in some respects as those inclusions and blemishes don’t happen in the lab the way they do in nature.

Both my engagement and wedding rings feature lab-created sapphires and I couldn’t be happier about it–I get all the sparkle without feeling guilty about how much they cost Todd.

What’s your opinion on birthstones?