The name ‘lapis’ derives from the Latin word for stone, and ‘Lazulum,' meaning blue or Celestine, which likely derives from the Persian ‘Lazhuward,' the name the Persians gave to the Afghan deposits and also the source of the word ‘azure.' While Lapis Lazuli was called ‘sapphirus’ (blue) by the Ancient Greeks and in Imperial Rome, this name is now used to refer to the blue variety of Corundum, Sapphire.
Chemical composition of Lapis Lazuli
Lapis Lazuli is an opaque gem composed of multiple parts of lasurite, a mineral responsible for its beautiful blue color, of calcite, which causes the white striations and pyrite,with its golden shards.
Lapis Lazuli extraction
Lapis Lazuli: The raw gem
The most renowned deposit of Lapis Lazuli is that of Sar-e-Sang, in the Kokcha Valley of the remote district of Badakhshan in Northern Afghanistan. Active for over 7000 years, it is the site of some of the most ancient mines in the world. There are certainly other deposits of Lapis Lazuli, but the Afghan variety remains the best by reputation and experience. During antiquity, Afghan Lapis Lazuli was exported along ancient trade routes to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China and even Japan. The medieval Persian geographer Estakhri visited the Afghani Lapis Lazuli mines in the 10th century and when Marco Polo visited them in the 13th century, he wrote: “There is a mountain in that region where the finest Lapis Lazuli in the world is found."
Due to the many deposits present in Chile, Lapis Lazuli was made the Chilean national stone on 20 September 1984. Other countries where this wonderful gemstone is extracted include Russia (Lake Bajkal), Angola, Myanmar, Canada, Pakistan and the United States.
The history of Lapis Lazuli
The wonderful blue of Lapis Lazuli
Lapis Lazuli was mentioned as far back as 2650 B.C. in the famed ‘Epic of Gilgamesh,' the famous poem from Ancient Mesopotamia. The ancient Sumerian city of Ur had a thriving trade in Lapis Lazuli and its royal tombs, excavated in the late 1920s, contained more than 6,000 exquisite Lapis Lazuli statuettes, dishes, beads and seals. The ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks attributed divine forces to this celestial gemstone. Used for religious ceremonies and personal adornment, Lapis Lazuli was also worn as a talisman, amulet and inlaid jewel.
It was also used as a recompense for courage, and the Romans in particular believed it to be a strong aphrodisiac. An antique Roman bust made of Lapis Lazuli can be admired in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Namur.
During the first century B.C., During the first century B.C., Pliny the Elder described Lapis Lazuli as “a fragment of the starry vault of heaven." A big hit with ancient alchemists, Lapis Lazuli was even used in arts as a pigment. The color ‘ultramarine’ was once produced from crushed Lapis Lazuli. The wonderful blue hue is found, for example, in Persian miniatures from the 13th and 14th centuries, Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper,' and in a miniature in the Church of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre. The color ‘ultramarine’ was highly sought after due to its intensity and resistance to light, and its prices even exceeded that of gold. From 1828 onwards, the color was created synthetically, making it more accessible.
Properties of Lapis Lazuli
Lapis Lazuli is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh (2650 B.C.)
Lapis Lazuli is an easily cut gemstone. The only limit is the cutter’s imagination. Generally, a cabochon cut is preferred, but it can also be cut as a table, in beads, carvings or figurines. It can be difficult to find uniform and intense blues, and examples between 10 and 20 carats are considered exceptionally rare.
Lapis Lazuli is not only an antique gemstone, with 7,000 years of history behind it, but also features in various myths and traditions.
Varieties of Lapis Lazuli
According to certain Persian treatises on Lapis Lazuli, its colors may be classified into three groups: nili (dark blue), assemani (light blue) and sabz (green).
When grading Lapis Lazuli, the most attractive and coveted color is a uniform royal blue (rich violet blue). Flecks of color or, in general, flecks of green, negatively impact the beauty and value of the gemstone. In contrast, the presence of Pyrite give Lapis Lazuli a mystical, suggestive edge.
Chilean examples have a lighter color due to the high percentage of Calcite.
Care for Lapis Lazuli
Lapis Lazuli requires special attention. It cannot be exposed to heat sources or boiling water, and soaps, acidic and saline solutions should be avoided. A dry or slightly moist cloth is all that is needed for cleaning.