By Dr Emrys Chew

Lapis lazuli is a gemstone of great antiquity, prized as it has been by human civilization for some 7,000 years. Its name derives from the Latin word for stone (lapis) and the Persian word for blue (lazhward), from which we also get the Arabic derivative ‘azul’ and the English ‘azure’. In view of its vivid coloration and rich texture, lapis lazuli became the ancient alchemist’s ‘heaven stone’. Pliny the Elder described the stone as ‘a fragment of the starry firmament’. The earliest cultures valued lapis more highly than gold. Jewish tradition maintains that the Ten Commandments given to Moses were engraved on tablets of lapis. Ancient Egyptians buried their dead with a lapis scarab for protection; indeed, the famous gold burial mask of the boy-pharoah Tutankhamun (dating back to the fourteenth century BCE) is inlaid with lapis as well as blue enamel coloured by powdered lapis. And when the Greeks spoke of an ancient sapphire included with gold, they were undoubtedly referring to lapis.

From a scientific point of view, lapis lazuli is an aluminium and sodium mineral of considerable complexity. It is a rock composed mainly of the blue silicate mineral lazurite, sodalite and hauynite, together with traces of white calcite and brassy-golden pyrite. The vivid blue of lazurite is caused by sulphur, which forms an essential part of its chemistry. While it is relatively porous and soft—measuring only 5.5 on the Mohs scale—lapis lazuli is fine-grained and opaque, lending itself to cutting as beads, cabochons, plates, inlays and mosaics, as well as carving. Although lapis occurs naturally in shades of red, purple and black, only the blue material is classified as gem-grade, ranging from paler ‘denim’ hues to deep royal blue with a mix of violet and greenish undertones. Generally, the deeper and more intense the blue and the smaller the amount of calcite and pyrite present, the more valuable the stone.

It was the rich coloration of lapis lazuli that gave rise to its legendary status and mystical properties. Lapis figured, quite literally, in cultural life at the very cradle of human civilization: the ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6,000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli figurines of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. Ancient Egyptian society held that lapis cured depression among the living and offered comfort to the dead on their way to the next world; tombs were decorated with lapis to assist the deceased into the afterlife. While Egyptian women used powdered lapis as a cosmetic eye shadow, lapis was widely believed to protect against the evil eye, especially when the stone was cut into the shape of an eye. Ancient Macedonians used lapis charms to prevent miscarriages, while ground lapis was used to make a salve for reducing eye inflammation. Medicinally, it was also thought to be an aid against fevers, sore throats, and burns. The Romans regarded it as a potent aphrodisiac. However, in medieval Europe, it was thought to free the soul from error, envy and fear, and began to be used for religious art: lapis was crushed to produce the precious pigment ultramarine that was used in many sacred paintings and manuscript illuminations; the blue tint from ultramarine is famous for its unfading, vibrant quality. Even into Victorian times, powdered lapis was used as a pigment for elaborate artifacts and brooches of glass and enamel. For centuries, great quantities of lapis were sought by Tsarist Russia, often used in the form of small plates to veneer ornamental objects. Many of these pieces may still be seen in museums, particularly the Hermitage and St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

Sources of lapis include Argentina and the Ovalle Cordillera in Chile, the United States and Canada, as well as Turkistan and Slyudyanka (near Lake Baikal) in Siberia. Yet, historically, the world’s finest lapis has come from the gem deposits at Sar-e-Sang, in a remote valley of the Hindu Kush mountains of Badakshan, in northeastern Afghanistan. Found in veins within white marble, this lapis was exported to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumer, and later traded throughout the East and into Europe. During the course of his journey through Central Asia, Marco Polo observed: “There is a mountain in that region where the finest azure [lapis lazuli] in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.” What he was describing in the thirteenth century was, in fact, the renowned lapis mines of the ancient world. Remarkably, after nearly seven millennia, these mines are still yielding the best quality lapis lazuli ever produced.

Further Reading

  1. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Teresa Waugh (London, 1984).
  2. Peter Bancroft, Gem and Crystal Treasures (Fallbrook, California, 1984).
  3. Christopher Cavey, Gems and Jewels: Fact and Fable (London, 1992).
  4. Cally Oldershaw, Christine Woodward and Roger Harding, Gemstones (second edition, London, 2001).