Meet the Brilliant Blue Gems That Make Up December's Birthstones

Rachael Burrow
·3-min read
Photo credit: Michael Mauney
Photo credit: Michael Mauney

From Veranda

Tanzanite and turquoise are both renowned for their entrancing coloration—both today and in ancient civilizations—as well as being two of December's most sought-after birthstones (zircon is also considered a December birthstone). So what is it exactly that makes these gemstones so beguiling besides their dazzling hues?

Turquoise has played a decorative and spiritual role in almost every ancient culture, while tanzanite is more scarce.

Tanzanite is only mined in one place in all of the world: a small section of land near Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. It is thought that this rarity of location will lead to the gemstone mines' depletion in the next decade or so, making tanzanite jewelry even more valuable than it already is.

When it was first discovered by Manuel D'Souza in 1967 as a pile of blue stones lying near the base of the foothills near Mount Kilimanjaro, the gemstone was incorrectly labeled as a type of sapphire. Eventually, it was identified by the Gemological Institute of America as a type of zoisite. It was renamed "tanzanite" by Tiffany & Co. when Henry Platt, the great-grandson of Louis Comfort Tiffany, agreed to become its main purveyor and introduced it to the marketplace with a promotional campaign in 1968.

Turquoise, which was first recorded as being used in Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 B.C.E., has played an ornamental role in many ancient cultures. The Egyptians used it in gold necklaces and rings and carved it into scarabs, their symbol of renewal and rebirth. King Tut's burial mask was even inlayed with the stone, as some of the oldest mines are conveniently located in the Sinai Peninsula. Turquoise is typically found in dry, arid climates, which is why other mines are found in locales like Iran, Mexico, China, Chile, and the Southwestern region of the United States.

Photo credit: Sepia Times - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sepia Times - Getty Images

In ancient Persian culture, turquoise was celebrated for its color and was used to cover the domes of palaces because they pointed to Heaven. The ancient Persians also believed the gemstone brought victory and protection in battle, and they used the mineral to decorate their horses' bridles and soldiers' swords. When the stone was introduced to the West, its name ("mefkat" for ancient Egyptians and the "Persian blue stone" elsewhere) eventually evolved to "turquoise" as a riff on "Turkish stone." In the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, tribes used turquoise to make beads and jewelry and as a mosaic inlay.

Turquoise also holds heavy weight in the past and present of Native American culture in America's Southwest. Shamans, the religious leaders of tribes who were believed to have connections with the spirit world, employed it to communicate with the sky, and it also was used for jewelry and trade between North and South America. In the 1880s, it is believed that a white traveler traded with a Navajo artisan to set turquoise into a silver coin, beginning a singular look that is today still connected with the American Southwest.

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