DECEMBER has two birthstones – turquoise and zircon.Turquoise is considered by some to be a symbol of good fortune and success, bringing prosperity to its wearer. The name is believed to originate from the French phrase pierre turquoise meaning “Turkish stone” because turquoise was brought to Europe by merchants who first acquired it in Turkish bazaars. It is also considered by some as a love charm and when received as a gift, symbolises a pledge of affection. Turquoise is one of the earliest known stones to be used in jewellery. A tomb excavated in 1900 contained the mummified remains of Queen Zer, who ruled in 5500 B.C. Found on her arm were four magnificent turquoise bracelets. In the 7th century A.D., turquoise pieces inscribed with passages from the Koran and Persian proverbs were valued amulets. Turquoise has a rich history in the American southwest. Native Americans have been using this gemstone to create magnificent jewellery and ornamental pieces for the past several thousand years. It was called Chal-cui-hui-tal, meaning “the highest and most valued thing in the world”. The Zuni, Hopi, Pueblo and Navajo Indians made magnificent necklaces, ear pendants and rings. The blue in turquoise symbolised the heavens, and green symbolised the Earth. The stones were used by medicine men to work charms. The Navajo believed that turquoise pieces, thrown into a river while offering a prayer to the rain god, would bring much needed rain. Apache lore held that a turquoise attached to a bow or gun would ensure accurate aim. There are many superstitions associated with the gem. In the third century, it was believed to protect its owner from falling off a horse. A change in colour revealed the infidelity of a wife. Persians said the reflection of the new moon on a turquoise stone brought good luck, and guarded against evil. The second stone, the zircon, has an interesting background. In the 1920s, a new blue gemstone suddenly appeared on the market. Endowed with spectacular brilliance, it was an immediate hit. The gems were zircons, normally brown to green – but not blue. George F. Kunz, a Tiffany gemologist, immediately suspected trickery, not only were these extraordinary stones available in abundance, they were available all over the world. A colleague made inquiries during a trip to Thailand and learnt that a large deposit of unattractive brown zircon had stimulated colour-improvement experimentation by local entrepreneurs. Heating in an oxygen-free environment had turned the drab material into “new” blue stones, which were sent to outlets worldwide. When the deception was revealed, the market simply accepted the information, and the demand for the new gems continued unabated. The most prized zircon is the red gemstone, which is rare. Colourless zircons are the best imitators of diamonds, in appearance only, with a brilliant fire that is almost as dazzling as the real thing. However, the resemblance is superficial. Zircon is a brittle stone, easily broken with a well-placed knock. Its name is probably derived from the Arabic words zar and gun, meaning “gold” and “colour”. The hyacinth and jacinth, reddish-brown and orange-red varieties of zircon, were a favourite stone of ancient Arabs and even mentioned in the famed book, Arabian Nights. Zircon was regarded as the amulet for travellers in the 11th century, protecting them from disease, injury, and insomnia, as well as assuring a cordial welcome wherever their travels would take them. The gem was also believed to hold magic powers to fight evil spirits. During the 14th century, zircon was popular as a safeguard against the Black Death, the great plague that wiped out one quarter of the world population.The stone was believed to possess healing powers, being prescribed to insomniacs to induce sleep and used as an antidote against poison.