Birthstones and the Royal Arch

Monday, 18 July 2022

Have you ever purchased an item of jewellery as a gift for a partner or a new-born having first found out the colour of their birthstone?

Did you wonder how many types of birthstone there are? Well, there are twelve. There has been much argument over the years as to which twelve, but twelve is the number.

Twelve is an interesting number. There were twelve Apostles, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve months in a year, twelve days of Christmas and twelve tribes of Israel.

Did you ever wonder where the idea for birthstones originally came from? Well, if you are sat in any Royal Arch Chapter meeting, the clues are there in front of you. If you are sat in a Chapter meeting at St Mary’s 707 in Bridport they are staring you in the face!

The strange extra garment on the chest of the 707 Third Principle is the Breastplate of Joshua. This item of regalia dates to Victorian times and is not often seen these days in English Chapters. St Mary’s Chapter 707 was consecrated in 1870, so the possession of a Joshua Breastplate fits with their history. However, the wearing of such a breastplate did not begin with Joshua.

The first such breastplate was made for Aaron, the elder brother of Moses. It was made on the direct instruction of the Most High for Aaron’s newly appointed role as the first High Priest of the Israelites. This event occurred when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.

The breastplate was designed to represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Most High dictated exactly which stones should be placed on the breast plate and in what order and to which of the Twelve Tribes of Israel they should be dedicated. Each stone had the name of the tribe engraved below it. Some Masonic copies of the breast plate have the name written in English whilst others, like the 707 example, have the tribal names in Hebrew.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel were named after the ten sons and two grandsons of Jacob, so the stones linked to actual people. The colours of the stones were used as the background colours for the Tribal Ensigns which stand on the floor of every Royal Arch Chapter. So, the Ensigns reflect the breastplate.

Aaron, like Moses, died before he was able to enter the Promised Land and the role of High Priest and the regalia which went with it were passed on to his son and on down the line until they arrived with Joshua, the Son of Josedech in the period explored in Chapter ceremonies.

Historically people used to try and collect examples of all twelve stones, although there has been argument for centuries about which types of stones they actually were; because the Israelites didn’t have a mineralogist with them in the desert and old names can be confusing. In the end most people settled for the stone which corresponded to the month in the year in which they were born. In 1927 the Jewellers got together, and more or less agreed which gemstones would relate to which month and things have been fairly regulated since then.

Which brings us back to the present. When we get back to normal, I suggest you make a visit to 707 Chapter to have a look at this amazing old piece of regalia. And I hope you will remember what it is all about next time you buy somebody a birth stone!

Courtesy of Mark Hinsley

Royal Arch Chapter of Dorset

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