DECEMBER BIRTHSTONE HISTORY: The Most Mysterious Birthstone

December birthstone has had the toughest history of natal stones. The original December stone is the most mysterious. This obscurity left the month enshrining a green gem that was not its true birthstone. The surrogate itself was replaced with not one, but 2 exotic stones — of contrasting colors at that. One birthstone for December is a red gem from India; the other is a blue stone from Iran. While the blue December gemstone prevailed, it now competes with at least 2 other blue stones in the same month.

Derived from work of DonGuennie (G-Empire The World Of Gems), CC BY-SA 4.0

Heliodor

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 tenth, heliodor …

— Revelation 21:19-20

Heliodor, the greenish yellow beryl, must have been the original December birthstone. In the Book of Revelation, a stone called chrysoprasos is the 12th Foundation Stone,1 which is the birthstone of the 12th sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, as well as the partially concurrent month of December. People interpreted the name chrysoprasos to mean the modern-day chrysoprase, the green variety of chalcedony. However, the ancient chrysoprase, chrysoprasus in Latin, was a variety of beryl that was golden in color.2 This description points toward heliodor, not the modern chrysoprase.

Called chrysoprasus in Latin, the chrysoprase of antiquity was a gemstone that reproduces the tint of leek, but whose color veers slightly from that of peridot toward gold.3 In fact, the name chryso-prase means “golden green.” In contrast, the chrysoprase of today is entirely green. This stone was not called chrysoprase by the ancients, but would be identified simply as prase, since it lacks the tinge of gold that would have otherwise added chryso- to its name.

The equivalent of chrysoprasos in the Book of Exodus is the ligurion,4 whose identity is arguably the most obscure of the 12 gems on Aaron’s breastplate. Called leshem in Hebrew,5 the name ligurion applied to amber, an organic gemstone sourced from Liguria of Northern Italy. This gem was said to be of a tawny or pale waxy color.

However, made of fossilized resin, amber is too soft to be engraved with a Hebrew tribe’s name, as was done to all the gemstones on the priestly breastplate. Hence, the ligurion on Aaron’s breastplate must have referred to a gemstone that resembled amber, but whose hardness allowed for engraving. The golden prase of the ancients matches this requirement. Hence, the ligurion on Aaron’s breastplate must have been the yellowish green beryl, heliodor, golden like amber yet hard enough for engraving. Heliodor must indeed be the true December birthstone.

From Ra’ike, CC BY-SA 3.0

Chrysoprase

Chrysoprase was the traditional December birthstone in Russia. This designation is based on Revelation, which speaks of a gem called chrysoprason as the 10th Foundation Stone. The 10th Foundation Stone became the birthstone of the 10th sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, and the partially concurrent month of December.

However, the chrysoprason of the ancients was a variety of beryl with a golden green color,2 and would have referred to heliodor instead of the green chalcedony, which is what the name chrysoprase designates today. The modern-day chrysoprase is a variety of chalcedony ranging in shade from a light apple green to deep green. This gemstone does not fit the ancients’ description of the old chrysoprase, and would be simply called prase, since it lacks the touch of gold that would have otherwise added chryso- to its name.

Still, whether the modern-day chrysoprase is the same chrysoprase in Revelation makes no difference now. Chrysoprase did not make it in Europe as December birthstone from the 1400s onward.

From Humanfeather, CC BY 3.0

Ruby

Ruby was the December birthstone in several ancient cultures. India, who exported ruby to Europe, made ruby the birthstone of 2 months. The birthstone of the zodiac sign Leo, ruby is the gem of the Sun in India. The Hindu’s love for ruby is evident in the gem’s assignment to both July and December.

Other cultures adopted the Indian birthstone, but were split over which month to honor the gem in. Poland and Russia welcomed ruby in July, with turquoise getting December. On the other hand, the Jews, Rome, Italy, Spain and the Arabs made ruby the December birthstone.

From the 1400s to early 1900s, Europe in general acknowledged ruby as birthstone for December, with turquoise going to July. However, in 1912, America’s jewelers decided to switch ruby and turquoise. They transferred ruby to July while reinstating turquoise as the December birthstone.6 Ruby stayed in July since.

Ruby is the red variety of corundum, which in another color would be called sapphire.

Turquoise

Today, turquoise is the December birthstone. A gem from Iran, turquoise first entered the list of birthstones in Russia and Poland. The color of the traditional birthstone of December, chrysoprase, may have decided which month to welcome turquoise in. Like chrysoprase, turquoise is found in pale green too, although blue is the color by which the gem is most popular. Turquoise became an alternate December stone to chrysoprase in Russia.

Europe was hesitant over which month to accept turquoise in. From the 1400s to early 1900s, Europe removed turquoise as December birthstone in favor of ruby. Possibly because they could not decide where to drop the blue gem off, Europe assigned turquoise as alternate gem to 2 neighboring months: June and July. In 1912, however, America reinstated turquoise as birthstone for December,6 where the gem remains to this day.

Turquoise is a rare opaque gemstone of a pastel color, ranging in shade from blue to green.

Bloodstone

From the 1400s to early 1900s, Europe had bloodstone as December birthstone alongside ruby. Bloodstone came from India, who originally designated the gem as March’s birthstone. The Arabs, Poland and Rome honored this designation, but Europe assigned bloodstone to a 2nd month: December.

Given that the identity of the original December birthstone, ligure, was quite obscure, Europe deemed both ruby and bloodstone as worthy substitutes for the unknown gem. Still, in 1912, America removed both bloodstone and ruby from December, with March keeping the green gem.6

Also known as heliotrope in translucent gems, bloodstone is green chalcedony sprinkled with red inclusions of iron oxide or red jasper.

Lapis Lazuli

When America’s jewelers made turquoise the December birthstone in 1912, they also designated lapis lazuli as its alternate gem. This designation was short-lived, however. Forty years later, America took their choice back, and made zircon the alternate birthstone for December in lapis lazuli’s stead.6

Lapis lazuli is an opaque blue gem sprinkled with white films of calcite and yellow speckles of fool’s gold.

From DonGuennie – G-Empire The World of Gems – Die Welt der Edelsteine, CC BY-SA 4.0

Zircon

Today, zircon is an alternate birthstone for December. This glassy gemstone replaced the opaque lapis lazuli in 1952 to sit as December birthstone alongside turquoise.6

Though found in a rainbow of colors, the variety of zircon most widely regarded as December birthstone is the blue zircon. America’s jewelers picked blue gemstones to match the season in December, which comes with winter in America.

Zircon has born different names, including hyacinth or jacinth, which now applies to the warm-colored variety. Most mystical beliefs surrounding zircon were attached primarily to the jacinth.

From Wiener Edelstein Zentrum, CC BY-SA 3.0

Tanzanite

In 2002, America added tanzanite as alternate December birthstone. The gemstone itself was discovered only in 1967: just over 34 years before its debut among birthstones.7

Named after Tanzania, where the glassy gemstone was first unearthed, tanzanite ranges in shade from blue to violet. This gem from Africa is noted for its optical quality called pleochroism, in which a single tanzanite changes from blue, violet and even burgundy depending on the crystal’s orientation.

From Gemsphoto (www.finesell.ru), CC BY-SA 4.0

Blue Topaz

In America, although not officially recognized, blue topaz is considered as December birthstone. The dominance of yellow topaz in November propelled the blue variety to the like-colored birthstones of the succeeding month.

Most blue topaz gems in the market, however, were colorless, gray or brownish topaz that went through heat treatment.

Milky Heliodor Necklace

Blue December Birthstone

With December came birthstones of the most far-fetched origins. The traditional birthstone for December, chrysoprase, was not in fact the original gem, which must have been heliodor. Yet even chrysoprase got dropped in favor of ruby, which, imported from India, was unknown to the Hebrew. Ruby in turn bowed out as December gemstone before Iran’s turquoise, which was never on Aaron’s breastplate or the Foundation Stones of Revelation.

Over 2500 years since the time of Aaron, tanzanite, discovered not so long ago in Africa, jostles with turquoise and zircon as birthstone for December. As a result, December birthstone color can be consistently blue. All these recent arbitrary changes, however, give us an impression that birthstones are not about tradition anymore. As far as birthstones go, December is the month in the calendar where genuine tradition runs thinnest.

Know Their Magic

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

Learn the magic of December Birthstone

Footnotes

1

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

2

Pliny. “Book 37 – XX.” Natural History. Trans. D. E. Eichholz. Loeb Classical Library ed. Vol. X. Harvard University Press, 1962. Wikisource, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Rackham,_Jones,_%26_Eichholz)/Book_37. Accessed 27 July 2019.

3

Pliny. “Book 37 – XXXIV.” Natural History. Trans. D. E. Eichholz. Loeb Classical Library ed. Vol. X. Harvard University Press, 1962. Wikisource, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Rackham,_Jones,_%26_Eichholz)/Book_37. Accessed 27 July 2019.

4

“Exodus 28.” Septuagint. Blue Letter Bible, www.blueletterbible.org/lxx/exo/28/1/s_78001. Accessed 28 July 2019.

5

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

6

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

7

“Tanzanite (Zoisite) Value, Price, and Jewelry Information.” International Gem Society, www.gemsociety.org/article/tanzanite-jewelry-and-gemstone-information/. Accessed 31 July 2019.

Published October 20, 2019