Lapis lazuli, as lovely as its exotic name, has decorated humans and
enhanced their art for thousands of years.
Normally a rich deep shade of blue or blue-violet, lapis lazuli may
at times have a slight greenish cast. It is often sprinkled with
small gold specks. Those specks are tiny bits of pyrite (fool’s
gold) embedded in the stone. Poets compare lapis lazuli to a night
sky full of stars. Early people revered lapis lazuli as the home of
various deities and believed that it would confer blessings on them.
Healers used it to alleviate many ailments, including asthma,
depression, and eye problems. Ancient Greeks believed it to an
effective antidote to snake bite. Soldiers sharpened their swords on
lapis lazuli, hoping to make themselves invisible.
Later, royalty, like Catherine the Great of Russia, used it to line
the walls of their palaces. Artists in the Middle Ages ground it up
to make a luminous pigment called ultramarine, which is the source
of the glowing blues in the old masterpieces. Monks also used
ultramarine pigment for the illustrations in their finest
Lapis lazuli is one of those rare gemstones that occurs in only one
color - blue. Its name is a combination of Arabic and Latin words
meaning “blue stone.”
Miners first extracted lapis lazuli from the earth more than 6000
years ago in Babylon (now Afghanistan). Lapis lazuli is still
primarily mined in Afghanistan, with smaller mines in Chile, Myanmar
(Burma), Russia, and the U.S. Scholars believe that the references
to sapphire in the Bible actually allude to lapis lazuli, as all
blue stones at that time were called sapphire.
Lapis lazuli gets its blue color from lazurite, a complex mineral
containing sodium, aluminum, sulfur, calcium, silicon, and oxygen.
Other minerals in lapis lazuli may include amphibole, feldspar,
mica, apatite, sphene, and diopside. As lapis lazuli is a
combination of minerals, technically it is a rock. However, its
beauty has allowed it to be classified as a gemstone.
A soft (Mohs 5 - 6) and porous gemstone, lapis lazuli needs to be
protected from solvents and other chemicals. Jewelry made from it
needs to be stored away from harder stones and metals, to prevent
damage. Because of its softness, lapis lazuli is often used for
carved objects. (See my January, 1999 article, “On A Scale of One to
Ten” for an explanation of the Mohs scale and softness.)
Lapis lazuli has many imitators that the require the buyer to
beware. Swiss lapis, German lapis, and blue onyx are minerals such
as jasper and quartz that have been dyed blue.
Used by humans in myriad ways over the millennia, lapis lazuli
remains a favorite of those who treasure blue gemstones
****Sandra I. Smith, Writer ****