Lapis Lazuli is a beautiful deep blue gemstone. Its exact colour varies according to the proportions of the minerals from which it is composed and according to its source. Some lapis lazuli can be lighter blue or greenish blue while some is a rich purple blue, close to black. It is opaque and relatively soft; therefore it is almost always cut in cabochon or used as beads rather than being faceted.
Lapis Lazuli usually contains golden-coloured flecks of pyrite. These are usually considered to increase the desirability of the stone, and are an indication of authenticity. Lapis also often contains calcite, which sometimes shows as white flecks within the electric blue of the stone.
The name is derived from the Persian word lazhward meaning blue, and lapis, the Latin word for ‘stone’. It has also historically been referred to as sapphirus, meaning ‘blue’.
According to legend, the city of Ur on the Euphrates traded in lapis lazuli as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C.
It was also clearly highly prized with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt – lapis lazuli has been used to great effect in many of the treasures recovered from pharaonic tombs. Excavations in the ancient centres of culture around the Mediterranean have revealed much lapis lazuli used in the grave furnishings, and this indicates that it was also popular thousands of years ago among the Mesopotamians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.
In other cultures, lapis lazuli was regarded as a holy stone. Particularly in the Middle East, it was thought to have magical powers.
Before it became possible to produce this colour synthetically in 1834, the only ultramarine blue available was genuine crushed lapis lazuli. Many iconic artworks were painted using this, particularly for the blue of the Madonna’s robe.
Lapis lazuli was also found inlaid in the iconic burial mask of Tutunkhamun, along with turquoise and carnelian.
Traditionally, lapis lazuli comes from Afghanistan. It can, however, also be found in Chile, Siberia, Burma and California.