Lapis lazuli, an opaque gem cherished for its vivid, exquisite bright royal blue colour, was treasured by the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome. Historians believe the link between humans and lapis lazuli stretches back more than 6,500 years and ancient civilizations valued it as much as other blue gems, such as sapphire and turquoise. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) delved into the history of this blue stone.
Lapis lazuli has been fashioned in jewellery to show off its intense colour for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians ground it into a powder for use in cosmetics, medieval builders used it in mosaics to adorn their cathedrals, and renaissance painters used it to make “ultramarine” blue, an expensive pigment of unrivalled brightness and stability.
Merchant caravans transported lapis lazuli across Bactria, present-day Afghanistan, on their way to the great cities of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Persians and Indians. The ancient lapis mines of Bactria, the world’s oldest known commercial gemstone sources, dating back to 700 BC, still produce lapis today. Few outsiders have seen them, however, because of their inhospitable location.
Today, lapis lazuli is a well-known choice for jewellery pieces and a popular carving material for practical objects, including game boards, bowls, dagger handles, hair combs and amulets.
Journey of the Stone
Although many associate lapis with dark blue, it is also found in other shades of blue, and even other hues. Lapis lazuli’s colour can range from deep violet blue and royal blue to light blue, turquoise blue or a greenish blue. The combination of different minerals in lapis lazuli determines the colour. Lazurite, for example, is responsible for producing royal blue lapis, while a mineral called afghanite creates a pale blue shade.
Lapis lazuli frequently contains various amounts of calcite and pyrite. Calcite shows up as white flecks or streaks, while pyrite appears as flecks or veins of glinting yellow. The gem can also have a uniform body colour, free of visible pyrite and calcite.
Afghanistan is the world’s major source of lapis lazuli and the major source of the gem’s best colour. Lapis-mining conditions there are harsh. Mountains are steep, with deep ravines that discourage exploration, but miners have extracted fine lapis lazuli from the harsh and perilous terrain for centuries.
Lapis is also mined in Chile, Lake Baikal in Russian Siberia, Angola, Canada, Colorado in the US and Pakistan.
Lapis lazuli has been prized for thousands of years for its rich blue colour. Described as indigo, royal, midnight or marine blue, its signature hue is slightly greenish blue to violetish blue, medium to dark in tone, and highly saturated.
Lapis lazuli is a semi-translucent to opaque gem and is typically cut into cabochons, beads, inlays and tablets to show off its colour. Lapis rough can be very large, so large fashioned stones are more common than with many other gemstones. Larger sizes are also more likely to be carved into art objects, used in designer jewellery or cut into calibrated sizes.
In its most-prized form, lapis lazuli has no visible calcite, although it might have gold-coloured pyrite flecks. If the flecks are small and sprinkled attractively throughout the gem, their presence doesn’t necessarily lower the gem’s value. Lapis with white calcite streaks is considered less valuable. The lowest quality lapis looks dull and green, the result of an excess of pyrite.
Care and Cleaning Guide
Keep your lapis lazuli jewellery beautiful by cleaning with warm soapy water and a soft cloth.
Lapis lazuli has fair toughness, depending on the mix of minerals, and a waxy to vitreous lustre. It is durable enough to be used in jewellery, but should be worn with some care so as to avoid scratching it.