Birth of a Birthstone

Tanzanite has joined turquoise and zircon as an “official” birthstone for the month of December. The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) made the announcement Oct. 30.

But can anyone declare a new birthstone?

“There’s no astrological authority [that assigns birthstones],” Douglas K. Hucker, AGTA’s executive director, told JCK. “Most birthstones were established through tradition. Some date back to biblical times. But the current, contemporary list was developed in the ’30s or ’40s by a group of jewelers in the Midwest who got together to develop a modern list of birthstones and alternate birthstones. The decision to include tanzanite for December was also reached through an industry consensus.”

That consensus began a few years ago at an industry meeting called by AGTA. The meeting covered several topics including possible additions to the birthstone list. Tanzanite was considered a good possibility, notes Hucker, but the meeting produced no decision regarding birthstones.

“We started getting a few phone calls in earnest just a few months ago about making tanzanite a birthstone,” Hucker says. “So we contacted the American Gem Society (AGS) and Jewelers of America (JA).” Hucker was surprised to learn that both organizations had already included tanzanite in their promotional materials. “Obviously in a low-key fashion,” he says.

JA’s tanzanite leaflet mentions that the gem is sometimes used as an alternative December birthstone, but JA’s birthstone brochure doesn’t list it. According to JA senior vice president David Rocha, “When we run out of that brochure, we’ll add tanzanite.”

Other associations involved in the recent consensus for tanzanite include the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and the International Colored Stone Association (ICA), says Hucker. “We’ve talked with the ICA, and while it’s not been voted on by the membership, everyone we talked to is supportive, and they will officially address it rather soon.”

AGTA’s research indicates that consumers don’t purchase birthstones simply because they’re birthstones. “Most consumers are aware of what their birthstone is, but less than 10% responded positively when asked if their birthstone was the prime reason for buying the gem,” notes Hucker. “It is, however, a prime educator for them.”

Rocha makes a similar point: “I’ve seen some really old [JA] documents that indicated that JA provided birthstone lists, but other than that, I can’t remember the last time someone called up and requested birthstone information. In fact, we get more calls throughout the year from consumers trying to figure out what the 80th anniversary stone is—that kind of thing—than we do about birthstones.”

Hucker points out that making a gemstone an alternate for a birthstone does give it an advantage: “It’s going to give your sales staff a reason to show it. But if what the consumer is telling us is true, then it’s the tanzanite itself that will make the customer want to buy it—not just because it’s their birthstone.”