AUGUST BIRTHSTONE HISTORY: A Colorful Mess

August birthstone today consists of 3 gemstones. One is banded; the others are of plain color. One is green, while the others sit on the opposite end of the color wheel. None of these gems is the original birthstone for August.

Sard

The foundations of the city’s wall were adorned with all kinds of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, lapis lazuli … the sixth, sard …

— Revelation 21:19-20

Sard was the original August birthstone from the Bible. Known as odem in Hebrew,1 sard was among the 12 gems on Aaron’s breastplate. Mentioned by the Greek name sardion,2 sard was the 6th Foundation Stone in Revelation. Sard is accordingly the birthstone of the 6th sign of the zodiac, Virgo, and the partially concurrent month of August.

Sard

Known as carnelian in lighter shade, sard is the dark red variety of chalcedony.

Carnelian

Carnelian is a close variant of sard. The difference lies in the shade, which in sard is darker. While sard is the original birthstone for August from the Bible, carnelian was the gemstone traditionally recognized as the August gemstone. Jewish culture, Rome, Italy and Spain had carnelian for August. Europe in general celebrated carnelian as an August birthstone from the 1400s to early 1900s.

However, a decision by America’s jewelers in 1912 spelled carnelian’s fall from grace. America erased carnelian from the list of birthstones altogether,3 although Britain added the gem back as alternate gem to July’s ruby.4

Carnelian is red chalcedony in a lighter, usually orangey shade, as opposed to sard’s darker brownish color. Today, the names sard and carnelian have become interchangeable.

Sardonyx

Sardonyx was designated as August birthstone in Poland and Arab culture. The Poles and Arabs were half consistent with tradition, so to speak, since the sard of sard-onyx is the same stone as the original birthstone for August, sard. Sard and sardonyx had in fact been regarded as varieties of the same gem.5 Even a prominent Jewish scholar of the 1st century confused sard and sardonyx. Josephus described the stone on the priestly breastplate as sardonyx,6 while previously saying it was sard.7 The interchangeability between their names may have led to sardonyx’s designation as August gemstone instead of sard or carnelian.

Still, sardonyx’s banded appearance sets the gem apart from the original August birthstone.

Notwithstanding this incongruence, sardonyx endured as an alternate birthstone for August. From the 1400s, Europe in general accepted sardonyx as August birthstone alongside carnelian. Furthermore, in a huge blow to the latter, America’s jewelers in 1912 sealed sardonyx’s presence in August, while removing carnelian entirely from the chart of birthstones.3 Sardonyx survived where carnelian did not.

Sardonyx is a variety of chalcedony with red and white bands. This gem may also have onyx’s black bands.

From Stanislav Doronenko, CC BY 3.0

Sapphire

Sapphire was the birthstone for August in Ancient India, who exported the gem to Europe.8 When the tradition of birthstones spread to India, the Asian subcontinent replaced the Arabs’ sardonyx with sapphire for its August birthstone. Europe, however, thought better of this designation, and kept sapphire in April, where the blue gem was traditionally assigned.

A gemstone from the mineral corundum, sapphire is found in a variety of colors except red, which would be called ruby. The signature deep blue of sapphire, however, remains the gem’s most popular color.

Alexandrite in its two colorsBy David Weinberg for Alexandrite.net, CC BY-SA 3.0

Alexandrite

Russia made alexandrite its August birthstone. This color-changing gemstone was discovered only in the 1830’s.

Alexandrite got its name from King Alexander II of Russia, who was to succeed the throne at the time of the gem’s discovery.9 Alexandrite is a variety of chrysoberyl that changes color depending on the source of illumination. Alexandrite crystals from Russia shift from a shade of green during the day to a reddish hue at night under incandescent light.

From Wiener Edelstein Zentrum, CC BY-SA 3.0

Topaz

Topaz is another August birthstone in Europe from the 1400s to early 1900s. Along with moonstone, topaz must have transferred from the next month. Besides November, topaz under the name chrysolite was birthstone for September. However, the name chrysolite applied to topaz and peridot alike. As peridot held increasingly stronger claim over the name chrysolite, the green gem must have pushed the other chrysolite over to the preceding month. Still, topaz did not linger in September past the 20th century, though the gem has held fast to November up to this day.

While most widely regarded as yellow, the transparent topaz also occurs in red, orange, wine and blue.

Moonstone

From the 1400s to early 1900s, Europe regarded moonstone as August birthstone. A product of India, moonstone joined the list of birthstones as India’s gem for September. The popularity of September’s chrysolite, however, saw Europe assign moonstone to the preceding month instead. The latter designation came to an end in the 20th century after America made moonstone an alternate gem to June’s pearl.

Moonstone is white feldspar consisting of alternate layers of orthoclase and albite. The parallel layers refract light between them, thereby giving moonstone the appearance of glowing from within.

Peridot

Today, peridot is the primary birthstone of August. Peridot was the 3rd September gem to migrate to August following moonstone and topaz. Notwithstanding the lack of historical connection between peridot and the month of August, America made peridot the August birthstone in 1912. Britain followed suit in 1937.3

Peridot is a transparent stone from the mineral olivine. The gem is most popular in lime green and olive green.

From S kitahashi, CC BY-SA 3.0

Spinel

Spinel is the newest addition to the chart of birthstones. In 2016, America added spinel as the 3rd birthstone for August alongside peridot and sardonyx. As a consequence, the red and green of Christmas decors sit cheek by jowl in August, not even a quarter until the holidays. Spinel’s debut in August also puts the traditional sardonyx in danger of getting written off as August birthstone. Spinel is the 3rd glassy red gem to stand among today’s birthstones following January’s garnet and July’s ruby.

Many named rubies in history, including balas rubies, were in fact spinel. One such spinel is the Black Prince’s Ruby. Henry V was said to have worn this spinel on his helmet at the Battle of Agincourt, where the stone deflected what would otherwise have been a fatal blow.10

Sard Carnelian Necklace

What’s the August Birthstone Color?

August is a mess as far as birthstones go. Carnelian, the original birthstone for August, is almost nowhere to be found among today’s birthstones. On the other hand, a gem confused with carnelian, sardonyx, survived the cut-throat politics among jewelers, and remains an August birthstone to this day. Yet, even sardonyx is in danger of toppling off August. A gem on the other side of the color wheel, peridot, has become the principal August gemstone; whereas, just a few years back, a new gem came into the fray: spinel.

The latest August birthstone flies back across the color wheel and sits opposite peridot. Standing cheek and jowl in August, green peridot, banded sardonyx and red spinel would tell you how awry the reshuffling of birthstones has gone.

Know Their Magic

Each birthstone for August is attributed with magical properties. Know the magical powers of August stone, as well as those of your zodiac birthstones, when you read my book Power Birthstone.

Learn the magic of August Birthstone

Footnotes

1

“Exodus 28.” The Bible. Bible Hub, biblehub.com/interlinear/exodus/28.htm. Accessed 28 July 2019.

2

“Revelation 21.” The Bible. Bible Hub, biblehub.com/interlinear/revelation/21.htm. Accessed 28 July 2019.

3

Knuth, Bruce G. “Birthstones.” Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore. Revised ed. Parachute: Jewelers Press, 2007. pp. 293-327.

4

“Birthstones.” The National Association of Goldsmiths. Internet Archive, web.archive.org/web/20070528103836/http://www.jewellers-online.org/pages/tips.php?id=2&idnew=2. Accessed 30 July 2019.

5

Knuth, Bruce G. “Sard.” Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore. Revised ed. Parachute: Jewelers Press, 2007. p. 198.

6

Flavius, Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Vol. I. Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, and Co., 1829. pp. 139-142.

7

Flavius, Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Vol. IV. Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, and Co., 1829. p. 145.

8

Warmington, E. H. “Mineral-Products.” The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India. Indian ed. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, 1974. pp. 243-249.

9

Kunz, George Frederick. “Alexandrite.” The Curious Lore of Precious Stones. New York: Halcyon House, 1938. p. 54.

10

Knuth, Bruce G. “Spinel.” Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore. Revised ed. Parachute: Jewelers Press, 2007. p. 203.

Published October 18, 2019