Today’s culture is learning what the ancient Greeks already knew—personal jewelry has the potential to be far more meaningful than just another marketing campaign. The Greeks believed that specific gems reflect who we are as individuals and perhaps even hint at our greater place in universe.
When trying to find a gem that reflects our identity, we usually think of birthstones. Unfortunately our modern list of birthstones is far less official than many realize, facing constant alterations from companies over the years to accommodate shifting fashion trends and fluctuating prices.
The concept of birthstones originated from civilizations even more ancient than the Greeks, like the Babylonians and Israelites. According to the Roman-Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus, these early civilizations collected and studied gemstones and, based on their attributes, assigned one to each of the 12 signs in their zodiac calendar.
Their names had become obscured over thousands of years, but not before the ancient Greeks recorded and replicated them; and today’s historians have done an excellent job of unearthing the original identities of these astral stones.
- Aries (March 21 - April 19)
- Taurus (April 20 - May 20)
- Gemini (May 21 - June 20)
- Cancer (June 21 - July 22)
- Leo (July 23 - August 22)
- Virgo (August 23 - September 22)
- Libra (September 23 - October 22)
- Scorpio (October 23 - November 21)
- Sagittarius (November 22 - December 21)
- Capricorn (December 22 - January 19)
- Aquarius (January 20 - February 18)
- Pisces (February 19 - March 20)
The Aries Birthstone is Carnelian
At one time this birthstone for Aries was known as Odem, from the Hebrew word “redness,” but we now call it Carnelian (from the Latin word “flesh”). The vernal equinox marks the beginning of the four seasons, and the beginning of Aries, so those born in its sign are usually natural leaders and have no problem putting themselves first. With colours ranging from a soft orange complexion to an intimidating black-red, Carnelian channels this sign’s strong, passionate, and physical nature.
Ancient Names: Odem (Hebrew), Sardion (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Red Jasper, Sard
The Taurus Birthstone is Peridot
Due to its Greek name “Topazion,” this birthstone for Taurus is often mistaken as Topaz. In reality, the name is a reference to the illusive island Topazos in the Red Sea (from the Greek word “seek”), which was mined for its abundant supply of Peridot. Considering the island’s reputation, it seems appropriate that those born in Taurus have a talent for searching and curating only the finest of products. Peridot’s thick, cloudy hue embodies this sign’s stubborn, yet consistent personality.
Ancient Names: Pitdah (Hebrew), Topazion (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Serpentine, Chrysolite
The Gemini Birthstone is Emerald
Even though Emerald is well known for its green colour, various ancient texts use the birthstone for Gemini to describe bright flashes of lightning and brilliant glimmering rainbows--reflecting both Gemini’s quick tongue and expressive personality.
Like sunlight flickering through an Emerald forest, this sign’s mutable personality can be unpredictable and shift from outgoing and explorative to stern and restless.
Ancient Names: Bareketh (Hebrew), Smaragdos (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Green Feldspar, Heliodor
The Cancer Birthstone is Ruby
This birthstone for Cancer is categorized as a type of Carbuncle (from the Latin word “glowing coal”), so it’s appropriate that the Ruby’s deep red embers match this sign’s tendency to let their feelings smolder under the surface. The Ruby is one of the hardest gems in the world, so while those born in Cancer may seem guarded they’re also built strong enough to shelter and comfort the ones they truly care about.
Ancient Names: Nophek (Hebrew), Anthrax (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Almandine Garnet
The Leo Birthstone is Lapis Lazuli
An ancient description of the birthstone for Leo mentions its simple blue colour also having streaks of glamorous gold running through it--which is an obvious reference to Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli’s opaque tone epitomizes the boldness of those born in Leo, especially when they decide they really want something; and their streaks of golden luck often mean they end up getting it.
Ancient Names: Sappir (Hebrew), Sappheiros (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Azurite
The Virgo Birthstone is Sardonyx
Meaning “to strike,” the gem Yahalom is what we now call Onyx. This birthstone for Virgo was used to cut out shapes and carve words into other stones, so it’s fitting that this sign often possesses sharp analytical skills and an interest in communication. Onyx (from the Latin word meaning “claw”) also emphasizes the candid, hands-on nature of those born in Virgo.
Ancient Names: Yahalom (Hebrew), Onychion (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Onyx
The Libra Birthstone is Yellow Sapphire
The birthstone for Libra is Yellow Sapphire. It was rumoured to have electrical properties due to its similar appearance with the more common material amber. (When compressed amber loses its equilibrium and develops a positive and negative charge.) It’s rather appropriate that this gentle sign responds to stress in a similar way--those born in Libra are experts at maintaining balance and diplomacy, and when pushed to one side they’ll instinctively withdraw to the other.
Ancient Names: Lesem (Hebrew), Ligurion (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Jacinth
The Scorpio Birthstone is Greek Agate
Those born in Scorpio are characterized by great depth--deep feelings, deeply intense experiences , and often a deep-seated suspicion of others. Similarly, agate is a volcanic stone born from deep beneath the earth’s crust. It’s banded beige layers mimic this sign’s numerous layers of thought trying to understand their own motivations as much as others’.
Ancient Names: Sebo (Hebrew), Achates (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Coldwater Agate
The Sagittarius Birthstone is Amethyst
At one time Amethyst, the birthstone for Sagittarius, was known as Ahlamah and may be rooted in the Hebrew word “dream.” Those born in Sagittarius are known for to be dreamers, with their insatiable desire to explore and heightened sense of optimism. Later that same word also came to mean “strong drink,” also corresponding with this signs tendency to always be on the lookout for a good time.
Ancient Names: Ahlamah (Hebrew), Amethystus (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Purple Sapphire
The Capricorn Birthstone is Topaz
Like those born in Capricorn, the ancient name for Topaz was a practical one--derived from the port where it was commonly traded in Tarshish. Today we call the golden variety of this stone Imperial Topaz, befitting this sign’s habit of harnessing heir discipline and knowledge to hone their expertise and distinguish themselves in society.
Ancient Names: Tarsis (Hebrew), Chrysolithus (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Yellow Jasper, Citrine
The Aquarius Birthstone is Aquamarine
The modern name Aquamarine is rooted in the Latin phrase for “seawater,” corresponding with the symbol for this sign: ripples of water being disturbed. Those born in Aquarius can be as difficult to navigate as the sea itself, known for their eccentricities and disruption of social norms. The concern they carry for humanity is more abstract--they naturally keep their friendships afloat but sometimes struggle with diving in and actually connecting.
Ancient Names: Soham (Hebrew), Beryllion (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Malachite, Turquoise
The Pisces Birthstone is Green Jasper
The gem Iaspis is perhaps the most difficult to identify because of its countless variations--some speculate it could include anything from shifting colours of Opal to the speckled shades of Bloodstone. Those born in Pisces, marking the end/death of the seasonal calendar, share this mysterious and whimsical quality. This sign’s flighty, romantic and compassionate qualities make them easy to befriend but difficult to make best friends. Ultimately historians have concluded that this birthstone in Pisces is the coveted and inspiring Green Jasper.
Ancient Names: Yasepheh (Hebrew), Iaspis (Greek)
Known Alternatives: Jade, Bloodstone/Heliotrope
If the qualities of these 12 original zodiac birthstones held much more significance to the ancients than the arbitrary lists that jewelers publish today, perhaps your corresponding astral birthstone will have a greater impact on you too!