Lapis lazuli is a semiprecious stone valued for its deep blue color.
The unusual name of this gem is composed of “Lapis,” the Latin word for stone, and “Azula,” which comes from the Arabic and means “blue.”
It is formed as a metamorphic rock of the limestone type.
Lapis lazuli is semitranslucent to opaque, with a waxy to vitreous luster.
It has a hardness of 5 to 5.5 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness.
Variously described as indigo, royal, midnight, or marine blue, lapis lazuli’s signature hue is slightly greenish blue to violetish blue, medium to dark in tone, and highly saturated. In its most-prized form, lapis lazuli has no visible calcite, although it might have gold-colored pyrite flecks.
Lapis lazuli is found in limestone in the Kokcha River valley of Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan, where the Sar-e-Sang mine deposits have been worked for more than 6,000 years.
Today, mines in northeast Afghanistan are still the major source of lapis lazuli. Important amounts are also produced from mines west of Lake Baikal in Russia, and in the Andes mountains in Chile. Smaller quantities are mined in Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada.
The gem was treasured by the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. They valued it for its vivid, exquisite color, and prized it as much as they prized other blue gems like sapphire and turquoise.
Ancient Romans used to call it “sapphires,” which was subsequently applied to the blue variety of corundum we know today as sapphire.
Ancient egyptians regarded lapis lazuli as a heavenly stone and often used it on the statues of their gods and in burial masks, as protection for the next life. The stone has been used in the mask of Tutankhanem. It was a favorite stone for amulets and ornaments such as scarabs. The stone was also used to create blue cosmetics.
There are many references to sapphires in the Old Testament, but most scholars agree that, since sapphire was not known before the Roman Empire, they most likely are references to lapis lazuli.
At the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive pigment available (gold being second).
It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Virgin Mary.
Michelangelo used lapis lazuli powder for the blue colors in his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel.
Its usage as a pigment in oil paint largely ended in the early 19th century when a chemically identical synthetic variety became available.
Lapis takes an excellent polish and can be made into jewelry, carvings, boxes, mosaics, ornaments, small statues, and vases.
Lapis lazuli is the birthstone associated with the month of December.
It is one of world’s most popular men’s gems.