JANUARY BIRTHSTONE HISTORY: Most Conflicted of Birthstones

January birthstone comes in a fiery red. This bright red brilliance resembling burning ember was found in a gem called anthrax. Despite the replacement of this January stone with a blue gem, the warm birthstone color of January prevailed, and even morphed the blue gem into a similarly red gemstone in later terminology. The world fervently cherished the fiery birthstone for January, which consequently shows no sign of dying out.

Garnet

You shall make a breastplate of judgment. … You shall set in it settings of stones in four rows: a row of sard, peridot and emerald shall be the first row; and the second row a garnet, a lapis lazuli and an onyx …

— Exodus 28:15-18

Garnet is the January birthstone from the Book of Exodus. Nophekh, as the gem was called in Hebrew,1 was translated as anthrax in the Greek Old Testament,2 and carbunculus in the Latin version.3 This gemstone was a burning-red gem on Aaron’s breastplate.

The name carbuncle, as the gem was later called, denotes a fiery-red gemstone that resembles burning coal, hence the Latin name carbunculus, which means “small coal.” Carbuncle designated any transparent bright-red gemstone, and equally referred to ruby and red hyacinth as it did to red garnet. Ruby, however, came from India, and was almost certainly unknown to the Hebrews at the time of Aaron.4 On the other hand, carbuncle in antiquity most widely denoted garnet, and later became exclusively synonymous with red garnet.5 It was in this fashion that garnet entirely took the names anthrax and carbuncle over, and appropriated the place of January birthstone all to itself.

While the Christian Book of Revelation replaced garnet with a blue gem called hyacinth, the Jews maintained that the gem on the priestly breastplate was carbuncle.6 This reinforces red garnet as the January birthstone over the blue hyacinth from Revelation. To this day, garnet stands as the unbeatable birthstone for January.

While most commonly red, garnet occurs in a rainbow of colors, from the deep red pyrope to the rich green tsavorite. In fact, the most expensive variety, the demantoid garnet, is a bright green gem. Still, garnet is best known in red. Hence, red garnet in particular has been cherished since antiquity as the January birthstone.

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

Hyacinth

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 eleventh, hyacinth …

— Revelation 21:19-20

Hyacinth, hyakinthos in Greek,7 was the birthstone for January from the Book of Revelation. Designated as the 11th foundation stone of the New Jerusalem, hyacinth was assigned to the 11th sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, and the partially concurrent month of January. While other cultures dropped this birthstone in favor of garnet, hyacinth held on as alternate January birthstone in Italy and Russia, and even appropriated the month to itself in Spain.

The hyacinth flower, after which jacinth was named

However, the color of hyacinth in antiquity is different from how modern gemology defines the gem. Also called jacinth, hyacinth as we know it today is a warm-colored variety of zircon, either yellow, red, orange or brown. This is in stark contrast to how the ancients described the gem. Pliny of 1st-century Rome, for instance, speaks of hyacinth, hyacinthus in Latin, as having the same color as the flower of the same name — that is, a shade of blue less striking than amethyst.8 The hyacinth of Revelation is therefore interpreted as a blue gemstone, possibly referring to the blue zircon.

Still, the popularity of garnet quite possibly influenced the color by which hyacinth was known over 900 years later. Even as the red garnet of the priestly breastplate was replaced by the blue hyacinth from the Book of Revelation, the popularity of the red gem prevailed, and even turned the identity of the substituted hyacinth from a blue stone to one of a similarly fiery color. In addition, many of the supposedly hyacinth gems in history may in fact have been garnet.9 Today, the name hyacinth designates the warm-colored zircon, ranging in shade from red to yellow.

From PumpkinSky, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sapphire

The blue sapphire may quite possibly be the ancients’ hyacinth, the birthstone of January from Revelation. Though hyacinth today refers to the red zircon, the hyacinth of the ancients was a blue gem. While the next immediate candidate to have been this blue gem is the blue variety of zircon, it is possible that the ancient hyacinth may not have been zircon at all. The January birthstone from Revelation could have referred to the blue sapphire.

Sapphire comes from the mineral corundum, which in red is called ruby. The blue corundum has mistakenly been identified with the original April birthstone, sapphiros, which turns out to be lapis lazuli. In truth, there is no mention of the blue corundum among the birthstones from the Bible except for the blue gem’s possible identity as the mysterious hyacinth, the January birthstone from Revelation.

Red Garnet Ring

Fiery January Birthstone

People have cherished the January gemstone, which ironically is the most conflicted of birthstones. Given how garnet reigned for over 2500 years where 10 other original birthstones were toppled from throne, you would not think that this highly cherished birthstone came from a profoundly conflicted origin. Since the red gem on Aaron’s breastplate finds no match among the 12 Foundation Stones of Revelation, garnet was left to pair with hyacinth, which came in the starkly opposite color — blue. Red garnet and blue hyacinth vied for January.

In the end, garnet held fast to January, and even influenced the identity of its rival. Today, what people call hyacinth is no longer blue, but a warm-colored stone similar to garnet. The fiery red prevails as the January birthstone color, and garnet as the month’s most cherished gem.

Know Their Magic

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

Learn the magic of January Birthstone

Footnotes

1

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

2

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

3

“Exodus 28.” Biblia Sacra Vulgata. Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+28%3A17-20&version=VULGATE. Accessed 28 July 2019.

4

Kunz, George Frederick. “On the High-priest’s Breastplate.” The Curious Lore of Precious Stones. New York: Halcyon House, 1938. pp. 282-296.

5

Knuth, Bruce G. “Carbuncle.” Gems in Myth, Legend and Lore. Revised ed. Parachute: Jewelers Press, 2007. p. 56.

6

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

7

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

8

Pliny. “Book 37 – XLI.” 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.

9

“Hyacinth (Mineral).” Theodora.com, 29 September 2018, theodora.com/encyclopedia/h2/hyacinth_mineral.html. Accessed 26 July 2019.

Published October 10, 2019