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 manuscripts.
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