Thirteenth-century Venetian gem dealer, Marco Polo traveled east in search of gems. In the Mongolian empire he entertained the fierce Kubla Khan with his travel stories and in payment was given turquoise, jade, Burmese rubies, and Ceylon sapphires. There he encountered the first paper currency. Amazed that anyone would trade irreplaceable gems for rice paper, Marco continued to barter his gold for gems, and his gems for rarer gems.
Gems through the millenniums have enjoyed an intrinsic value because of their universal acceptance as a medium of exchange.
Their natural beauty and perceived indestructibility surrounds their history with a mystique that is unrivaled by any commodity today. Wrapped up in the history and lore of gems is the use of gems as symbols. The history that interests us at this time is the association of gems and one’s birthday. How many times have you heard this question, “What is my birthstone? I was born in this month.” The appropriate answer is given and you wonder when and where did this selection of stones originate.
It is possible that the belief in birthstones was influenced by the Bible. In the story of Aaron (Exod. 28:17-21), the first high priest of the Israelites, his breastplate was meticulously described. It was decorated with four even rows of three gem stones each; each stone representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The list of these 12 stones differs depending on the translation. But in the King James’s version, the list is sardius, topaz, carbuncle, emerald, sapphire, diamond, ligure, agate, amethyst, beryl, onyx and jasper.
The number “12” through the ages has had great significance. In the New Testament (Rev. 21:12-21), the “New Jerusalem” had 12 gates that were 12 pearls. And the 12 foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with 12 types of precious stones: jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonqx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, and amethyst. There were 12 apostles, 12 signs in the zodiac, and 12 months in the year.
However, not until much later, in the 18th century, does the belief and use of the birthstone appear. The list of precious stones in the Bible stories do not exactly match that of the birthstone list but for some there are similarities. In addition, in Poland in the 1700s it was considered wise to wear the stone which was associated with your zodiac because its talisman properties were sent to protect from evil spirits.
The list of birthstones and zodiacal stones varied through the centuries. Finally, in 1912 the American Gem Society and the American National Retailers Association came up with their own list. Here it is:
The garnet an ancient gem known thousands of years before the birth of Christ, represent January and Aquarius. In those early times, it was known as a carbuncle and believed to possess great healing powers, especially against fevers.
Mythologically connected with Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, the amethyst represents February and Pisces. It’s reputed that if fashioned into a cup the amethyst will prevent the wine drinker from drunkenness.
Aquamarine or blood stone represents March and Aries. Aquamarine is one of the most highly prized beryls and blood stone imbues the wearer with courage.
The most famous of gems, the diamond represents April and Taurus. Diamond mines were believed to be in operation as early as the fourth century B.C.
But not until the 15th century did they gain in popularity, and they did so because of Louis de Berquem, a Jewish diamond cutter from Belgium. He developed a system of faceting that accentuated the brilliance of the stone.
The rarest and most valuable of all gemstones, the emerald represents May and Gemini. It was dedicated to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love. Cleopatra mined emeralds as early as 2000 B.C.
Blessed with wonderful choices pearl, moonstone or alexandrite, the person born in June and under the sign of Cancer is fortunate. Pearls have been cherished from the earliest times, adorning men and women alike.
In ancient times, the moonstone was used to arouse tender passion in lovers and give them the power to tell the future. A recent discovery, alexandrite was named after Czar Alexander II when discovered in Russia on his birthday.
Ruby, the Lord of gems, represents July and Leo. It is believed to exert powerful forces guarding a home or field against storms.
Gem of the sun whose rays give life, peridot represents August and Virgo. This stone promotes married happiness.
Believed to attract divine favor to their owners, sapphire represents September and Libra. The gem of the soul, used often in church regalia, it promotes clear thinking.
Opal known as the “child beautiful as love” by the Romans represents October or Scorpio. It is revered as the symbol of hope and purity. Tourmaline is also worn as this birthstone.
The most misused name of all the gems, topaz represents November and Sagittarius. This gem endows the wearer with faithfulness.
Turquoise, the most important of the opaque gemstones, represents December and Capricorn. A symbol of wealth, four bracelets made of turquoise and cast gold are the oldest pieces of wrought jewelry known in the world. Zircon alternates as the birthstone of this month.
History tells us that Marco Polo was born in 1254 and died in 1324; other than this, it does not give the exact date of his birth, so we do not know what his birthstone would have been.
However, we know he was immensely curious, as keen observer, resourceful, and able to endure much hardship. It sounds very much like Marco may have been a Gemini, and would have benefited from the emerald, which is thought to bring riches and fame and when the wearer places it under his tongue, endows him with the gift of prophecy. Marco, you devil you; so that is how you did it!