Reminiscent of its deep blue hues with twinkling flecks of gold, the Ancient Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder called lapis lazuli “a fragment of the starry firmament.” Considered a rock, lapis lazuli is a combination of several minerals, such as lazurite and gold-resembling pyrite. It is a semi-opaque stone, mined for its wearability and excellent take on polish to be used for jewelry and ornaments.
Did you know?
The name lapis lazuli comes from the Latin lapis, "stone," and the Persian lazhuward, "blue."
DID YOU KNOW?
EYES OF THE KING
Lapis lazuli inlay was used for the eyes of the globally known burial mask of Tutankhamun. The bands in the headdress of the Ancient Egyptian king are actually made of blue-painted glass, and are an example of imitations that testify to the ancient demand for the stone.
DID YOU KNOW?
Some compare the 17th-century painter Vermeer’s copious use of natural ultramarine, a lapis-made pigment, to a true obsession. Vermeer realized early in his career that the admixture of ultramarine with tones of gray lended them a luminosity produced by intense daylight which cannot be produced otherwise. It explains why he used this pigment in so many of his paintings, including the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Humans have always felt a natural attraction to lapis lazuli (lapis in short). Archeologists have found lapis lazuli jewelry and beads at sites dating back to as early as 6000 BCE. Its use for artisanry and jewelry probably originated in Badakhshan, a mountainous region comprising northeastern Afghanistan, eastern Tajikistan, and the Tashkurgan county in China. Some of the oldest lapis operating mines can be found here today. It is said some of them have been existing for over 7000 years, and that Marco Polo referred to the area’s mines in 1271. They are, in fact, the world’s oldest known commercial gemstone sources. Yet few outsiders have seen them with their own eyes, as their location is unbelievably hard to reach. Until today, Afghanistan is considered a major source for top-quality lapis lazuli.
Lapis would typically, due to its excellent wearability, be fashioned into jewelry pieces such as cabochons, beads, inlays, and tablets. But the stone’s use was never limited to jewelry alone. It was also carved into day-to-day objects such as dagger handles, hair combs, game boards, and amulets.In Old Babylonian times, cylinder seals carved from lapis lazuli were used to press official seals, signatures, and religious inscriptions into wet clay. In the Ayurvedic tradition, it was described as a type of lapidary medicine, and in Ancient Egypt, lapis was ground into pigment to create blue cosmetics. In 18th-century English and French royal courts, a symbolic “gem language” was used to discreetly convey messages. People would wear bracelets, brooches, and rings with gems, the first letters of which conveyed a motto or sentiment. Lapis lazuli reportedly portrayed messages such as “good luck” or “love me,” depending on usage and setting.
THE ISLAMIC TRADITION
From inscripted rings to engraved sword handles, bowls, tiles, and illuminated Qur’an manuscripts—the versatile use of this rock is also apparent in the Islamic tradition. Within the Unani Medicine tradition, it is considered as an effective drug to treat nerve and psychological disorders, especially melancholia. As Joumana Medlej, an expert in the field of pigments, has pointed out, Islamic illuminators used ultramarine, a color pigment originally made by grinding lapis lazuli into a powder, to highlight the most special manuscripts. Producing pigment out of lapis lazuli was incredibly labor-intensive and hence costly. True ultramarine did not appear in Europe before the 12th century, she adds, but was known to the Arabs earlier. The first descriptions of the pigmenting process stem from Arabic alchemical texts. In his masterpiece Treatises on How To Recognise Gems, the great 11th-century scientist al-Biruni cites that the color of lapis lazuli, when ground, “is so pleasing that none of the stones resembling it displays such a beautiful color.”