Lapis lazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock that has been prized since antiquity for its vivid color and used in jewelry, carvings, and ornamental objects for thousands of years. The name comes from the Latin lapis meaning “stone” and the Persian lazward meaning “blue”, so it literally translates to “blue stone”. This semiprecious stone is colored by lazurite, a blue silicate mineral that gives it its distinctive hue. Historically, lapis lazuli was associated with power, wisdom, and truth by ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and was fashioned into practical items such as vases and boxes.
The finest lapis lazuli is found in northern Afghanistan, where it has been mined from the Sar-e-Sang deposits in Badakhshan province for over 6,000 years. This Afghan lapis is treasured for its deep, uniform blue with little to no pyrite or white calcite. Other sources include Siberia, Chile, Italy, Canada, and Myanmar, but the material is generally of lower quality. The color can range from violet to greenish blue based on mineral composition.
In the process of lapidary, lapis lazuli is cut into cabochons, beads, and inlays to make jewelry and decorations. When tumbling, it’s best to use chrome oxide and group by hardness. Lapis lazuli makes a regal, coveted gemstone with its rich blue color and occasional flecks of gold pyrite, though high quality material can be costly.
Lapis lazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock that has been prized as a gemstone for thousands of years. Sometimes known as “blue stone” or “azure stone”, lapis lazuli was associated with power, wisdom, and truth by ancient civilizations like the Egyptians. It has been used to make jewelry, pigments, carvings, amulets, and ornamental objects since antiquity.
The name lapis lazuli literally means “blue stone” – lapis is the Latin word for stone and lazuli comes from the Persian lazward for blue. This vivid blue color comes from the presence of the mineral lazurite in the stone. In fact, lapis lazuli was once known as “ultramarine”, meaning beyond the sea, because of its dazzling blue tones reminiscent of the ocean and because the only sources were found overseas in places like Afghanistan.
Dating back over 6,000 years ago to the early Bronze Age, lapis lazuli jewelry has been found in the Predynastic Egyptian burials of Badari. Powdered lapis was used as early as the 3rd millennium BC in ancient Egypt to create the deep blue pigment used in temple wall paintings and Pharaoh headdresses. The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun was decorated with lapis lazuli as a symbol of power and to invoke the protection of the gods.
In the Renaissance era, European painters like Michelangelo, Titian, and Vermeer all used the exquisite ultramarine blue made from lapis lazuli in their most famous works. Its rarity and brilliant hue made it more valuable than gold at the time. But when a synthetic version was later invented, it opened up ultramarine to a wider range of artists. Still, the original lapis lazuli pigment is regarded as superior in quality.
Over the centuries, lapis lazuli spread along the historical trade routes from Afghanistan into China, the Arab world, and Europe, carried by camel caravans and traders who bartered the gemstones. It gained a reputation as a stone of wisdom, capable of unlocking ancient secrets and stimulating enlightenment. Many believed it could grant the wearer courage, clarity, and other powers.
Today lapis lazuli is still regarded as a stone of truth and illumination. For jewelry purposes, the ideal lapis gems have a deep, uniform color and just a few flecks of gold pyrite. The rarest and most coveted are the “Afghan” lapis from the Sar-e-Sang mines of Badakshan province. Let’s explore what makes this ancient blue stone so mesmerizing.
Where Lapis Lazuli is Found
The finest lapis lazuli is found in the steep, inhospitable mountains of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province about 4,900-16,500 feet above sea level. The rough and dry terrain here produces a superior grade of lapis, free from mineral impurities like calcite and pyrite. For over 6,000 years, the challenging sar-e Sang mine has been continuously producing the world’s best lapis.
The blue “Afghan” lapis is prized for its stunning color consistency. While lapis from other regions can vary from greenish to violet tones, the Afghan stones have a rich, saturated royal blue with just a slight hint of violet. The color comes from the high lazurite content, with very little white calcite present. This makes it ideal for carvings, jewelry, and ornamental objects where rich color is desired.
Other significant lapis lazuli deposits have been found in Russia, Chile, Pakistan, Canada, Angola, and Italy. In the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, Russia, lapis lazuli is mined from the Tultui Lazurite deposit, discovered in the 1960s. The lazurite is found in beautiful blue layers among white and gray marble. This Russian lapis can range from dark to light blue hues.
Chile’s Andes mountains also produce lapis lazuli, often with pyrite inclusions that give it a sparkly gold effect. The material from Italy is darker violet blue, while Canada’s lazurite deposits often have noticeably green tints. Myanmar and Pakistan also have lazurite gemstone mines. But none rival the fine quality and prestige of the legendary “Afghan” lapis lazuli.
Composition and Properties
Lapis lazuli consists primarily of the blue mineral lazurite, which composes around 25-40% of the stone. Lazurite is a feldspathoid silicate mineral with the chemical composition (Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)2. The sulfur ions within lazurite are responsible for its deep blue coloration.
The remaining composition includes calcite, sodalite, pyrite, white veins, and other impurities. Calcite adds white streaks and reduces the overall value and intensity of color. Pyrite appears as shiny yellow flecks of “fool’s gold”. The presence of pyrite inclusions can help identify real lapis versus fakes.
Trace amounts of other minerals like diopside, amphiboles, augite, mica, olivine, and chlorite can also be present in lapis lazuli. The variety and percentage of these minerals influence the exact color tones, from azure to violet. Green and yellow tints come from minerals like diopside. The more lazurite present, the better the color saturation.
Lapis lazuli rates around 5-6 on the Mohs hardness scale, due to the influences of the different minerals present. It falls between gypsum (2) and quartz (7) in hardness. The specific gravity ranges from 2.7-2.9. When polished it exhibits a faint to vivid luster and a light blue streak color. Due to its softness and opaque nature, lapis is almost always fashioned into cabochon cut gemstones. The smooth domed backs showcase its stellar blue color and pyrite flecks.
Comparison Table of Lapis Lazuli with Other Popular Gemstones
|Colorless, various colors
|Translucent to transparent
|Various, play of color
|Translucent to opaque
|Translucent to opaque
Mining and Processing
The earliest lapis lazuli mines were located in the steep mountains of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. These dry, remote deposits were first worked over 6,000 years ago using primitive tools and methods. Afghanistan still produces the global majority of lapis today. The challenging mining conditions result in exquisite, pure blue Afghan lapis.
Miners search for telltale signs visible on the surface that indicate deposits below, like blue colored rocks and boulders. They dig crude vertical shafts by hand or use explosives to blast entry points for extraction. Trucks and machinery are unable to access these high elevations, so everything is removed by hand. Lamps are used to illuminate the unlit vertical shafts during excavation.
Inside the SAR-e-Sang lapis mines, miners search for veins of blue lapis among the white and gray marble rock walls. The lapis usually occurs in smaller pocket deposits concentrated between layers of limestone. Miners use sledgehammers, chisels, and tools to break up and extract the material. The site looks like Swiss cheese due to the extensive tunneling and holes.
After extracting raw lapis from the mines, the stones go through an extensive sorting, grading, and cutting process. The lapis is sorted based on color saturation and quality. Professional lapidaries cut and shape the raw material into finished cabochons and beads for jewelry or carve one-of-a-kind ornamental works. Polishing brings out the blue sheen.
Tumbling is another popular lapidary technique used to smooth and polish raw lapis lazuli. The stones are rotated in drums with abrasive grit and polishing agents like chrome oxide. Advanced lapidary work today utilizes high speed saws, drills, and sanding belts for precision cutting. But artisanal hand methods are still employed.
Uses of Lapis Lazuli
- Jewelry – Lapis lazuli has been fashioned into jewelry for thousands of years. It is commonly cut into cabochon gemstones and beads for necklaces, pendants, rings, bracelets, and earrings. Jewelry artisans also finely slice lapis to create mosaic inlay designs in gold and silver settings.
- Carvings – The royal blue stone has been expertly carved into figurines, bowls, vases, boxes, and other ornamental objects since ancient times. Carvings often incorporate gold detailing to highlight the lapis. Sculptors favor the fine Afghan lapis for carving.
- Pigments – Historically, lapis was ground into a powder to make the prized ultramarine blue pigment used in Medieval and Renaissance oil paintings and tapestries. The pigment was more valuable than gold.
- Spiritual artifacts – In Eastern traditions, lapis lazuli is thought to have occult powers and has been carved into amulets, talismans, and spiritual relics to evoke enlightenment, wisdom, and protection from evil.
- Decorative ornaments – Lapis adds a regal pop of color when used to craft boxes, vases, bowls, tiles, ornamental spheres, bookends, clock faces, sundials, and other decorative pieces.
Several key factors determine the quality of lapis lazuli:
- Color – Deep royal blue lapis has the highest value. Green and white marbling or veining will reduce value. Afghan lapis is famed for its prized pure blue.
- Texture – Smooth, fine-grained texture is best for carving and cabochons. Coarse, rough, chalky textured lapis is lower grade.
- Clarity – Translucent, flawless lapis is ideal but rare. White calcite veining diminishes clarity. A few pyrite flecks add sparkle.
- Cut – Fashioned lapis with fine polished cuts yields the best brilliance. Proper orientation and cutting are needed to showcase color.
- Carat – While not the main value factor, larger lapis stones command higher market prices based on carat weight.
- Rarity – Exotic “Afghan” lapis remains the rarest variety. Vintage carved artifacts also have prestige.
Caring for Lapis Lazuli
Despite its ancient origins, lapis lazuli remains easy to care for with some basic precautions:
- Avoid wearing in water or when bathing to prevent damage from prolonged exposure.
- Use a soft dry cloth to wipe clean. Ultrasonic or steam cleaners can be used occasionally for thorough cleaning. Avoid acids or harsh chemicals.
- Store lapis separately from other gems to prevent scratching. Wrap in soft cloth or place in fabric compartments or boxes.
- Avoid heat sources like bright sunlight or flames that can cause drying and cracks.
- Check for small fractures that may need stabilization to avoid future cracking or breaking.
- Examine for any dissolution, acids, or oils that may penetrate and discolor the stone over time.
FAQs about Lapis Lazuli
What is lapis lazuli?
Lapis lazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock composed mainly of the mineral lazurite. It has been used as a semi-precious gemstone for thousands of years.
Where does lapis lazuli come from?
The finest quality lapis lazuli comes from mines in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. Other sources include Chile, Russia, Italy, Myanmar, Canada, and the United States.
What gives lapis lazuli its blue color?
The vivid blue color comes from the mineral lazurite. This blue silicate mineral comprises around 25-40% of lapis lazuli.
How is lapis lazuli graded for quality?
Quality factors include color saturation, texture, clarity, cut quality, and size. The finest lapis has a rich, uniform blue without white veins.
How is lapis lazuli jewelry made?
Jewelry artisans cut lapis lazuli into cabochon gemstones or beads. It is also used for inlay designs. Tumbling and polishing bring out its blue luster.
What are some other uses for lapis lazuli?
It has historically been used for ornamental carvings, decorative boxes and objects, and grinding into blue pigment for paints. It is also carved into amulets and talismans.
How should lapis lazuli be cared for?
Avoid prolonged water exposure and harsh chemicals. Store in soft cloth away from other gems. Check for fractures and monitor for discoloration over time.
How can you identify fake lapis lazuli?
Indicators include very pure blue with no veining or inclusions, unusual translucency, and uniform blue dye color throughout. Genuine lapis will have some mineral variations.
What makes Afghan lapis lazuli so special?
The “Afghan” lapis mined in Badakhshan is prized for its stunning pure blue color without impurities like pyrite or white calcite veins. The color is remarkably consistent.
The mesmerizing blue stone lapis lazuli has enchanted humankind for over 6,000 years. From ancient Egyptian queens to Renaissance oil paintings, this colorful metamorphic rock has been a staple of history. The finest lapis lazuli continues to come from the arduous mines of Afghanistan, where it is extracted in the same traditional way as thousands of years ago.
With its dazzling blue hues, hints of golden pyrite, and long mythic history, it is no wonder lapis lazuli is still treasured today. This rare stone harbors an inner glow, depth, and mystery that captures the imagination. Through its long journey along trade routes into art, jewelry, and lore, lapis lazuli remains a testament to the earth’s natural beauty and our connections to the past.
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