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Birthstones: Myth and History

The Science and Legends Behind Birthstones

“Supernatural powers have long been attributed by astrologers to certain gemstones. Wearing the gem associated with one’s birthday is commonly thought to bring good luck or health.”
—Encylopedia Britannica

The lure of birthstones
The basic human need to own and wear materials we deem "sacred" or special is what drives us to collect rocks and minerals. Perhaps this explains the lure of birthstones; how powerful it is to have our month of birth represented by a beautiful natural gemstone. We can own and display our special stone and feel embraced by its beauty. We hope you enjoy these facts, legends, and history behind each birthstone.

Difference between minerals and gems
All birthstones are minerals, but why are some minerals considered gems? Interestingly, there is no geological definition for the word gem, because a gem is a human creation. Minerals are formed by geologic processes in rocks in their natural environment. When we excavate precious or semiprecious stones, cut, and polish them into specific shapes, they become gems. When a gem is set into metal to be worn on the body it becomes a jewel. Several key factors determine the value of a gem: To be considered worthy of jewelry, the mineral must have rarity, durability, attractiveness, size, and color.

Written by Gena Schwam, graduate student, University of Washington Museology Program.
Photography by Ron Eng, Burke Museum geology collections manager

Photo by Ron Eng
Peridot's green is set off nicely by this gold setting.
Photo by Ron Eng
Quartz crystal is an alternate birthstone for April.