Gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, the Ancient Royal Blue Gem for Adornment and Utility
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Gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, the Ancient Royal Blue Gem for Adornment and Utility

About the colorful blue gem lapis lazuli which is actually a rock. It often contains inclusion minerals such as calcite and pyrite.

Lapis lazuli is unusual in that it is used for the same purposes as other gemstones, (which are minerals) yet it is not a mineral but a rock made from metamorphosed limestone. The name of this gem describes exactly what it is; lapis means stone in Latin and lazuli is from the Arabic al-lazward which refers to different shades of blue. Lapis lazuli’s historical roots can be traced back five thousand years, and there is visible evidence which still exists today that attests to its durability. It was used to decorate the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Persia, and lapis lazuli was found in the temple of Tutankhamen. It can also be seen at the temple of Ramses III, at Luxor. There are biblical references in the book of exodus, and ancient Arabic writings that testify to this blue gems history.

Although lapis lazuli’s primary color is royal or sky blue, its appearance, value and rarity are determined by the inclusion of minerals of which there are numerous; the principle mineral being lazurite. One of the most popular is pyrite, which adds attractive golden flecks to the stone. In the past those who have discovered lapis lazuli with this inclusion wrongly believed it to be gold. The most common inclusion is calcite which produces white streaks or flecks. Others are sodalite, which is blue and is often mistaken for lapis lazuli; hauyne which adds lilac colored crystals.

It is highly likely that the lapis lazuli used in ancient times was mined at Firgamu, Badakhshan province, northeastern Afghanistan. This is where the purest, blue stones are found. Sky blue lapis lazuli stones are found in the central Chilean Andes and Argentina; also Lake Baikal in Siberia. A dark blue variety is found in the Rockies in Colorado. And another source in the USA is found in San Bernardino County, California.

The mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamen is inlaid with lapis lazuli.

Lapis lazuli has been used for millennia in jewelry; principally beads but also pendants, bracelets, signet rings and to decorate daggers. It has been used for small carved items like boxes and statuettes and for engraving and inlay. Also for larger statues, such as the statue above the grave of Saint Ignatius in Rome, which was carved from a single block of lapis lazuli. The architect Auguste de Montferrand designed St Isaac's Square cathedral in 1818. It took forty years to construct and includeds columns' and inlays made of lapis lazuri. 

The green columns' at St. Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersberg, Russia, are malachite and the blue columns' are lapis lazuli. 

In the Middle Ages lapis lazuli was crushed and made into paint called ultramarine. It was highly sought and revered by renaissance artists of the day, such as Tintoretto, Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci. Curiously, it was also used in the Middle Ages for medicinal reasons; It was believed that it could cure dementia and epilepsy.

All images from commons.wikimedia.com.

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Comments (3)

Good article. I've always liked Lapis Lazuli and admired the beautiful stuff made of it.

Excellent article. I have actually visited the places that you presented as having lapiz lazuli, and I must say, it is quite a sight to behold!

These looks great!

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