Prized for its intense blue hue by cultures dating back to the 7th millennium BC, lapis lazuli is among the most treasured and unique stones in the jewelry world. Often mistaken for its more precious sister stone, sapphire, by people of ancient cultures, lapis is distinguished from its blue-hued relative by its opacity and inclusions of cloudy calcite and sparkling pyrite. These mineral veins give lapis a mystic, stellar quality, and the apt nickname “heaven’s stone,” or as the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder referred to it: “a fragment of the starry firmament.”
Mined primarily from large deposits in the Hindu-Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, most famously from the Sar-e-Sang mines in Badakhshan, (and sold frequently in Pakistan), lapis from this region tends to be purest, containing less pyrite and calcite inclusions. However, accessing ore from these mountains is an extremely difficult and dangerous task. Roads leading to the mines are uneven and fully exposed to the elements, and even today, quite difficult to access. Many of these reserves are now exhausted after heavy excavations in the later part of the 19th century, but from as far back as the Neolithic Period, this region was the number one source of quality lapis.
During ancient times, raw ore was brought west from these mountains along treacherous trading routes to Mesopotamia and Egypt, where it was fashioned into objects, relics, and jewelry. The Egyptians in particular carved lapis into a variety of forms, such as bowls, urns, and small statues. Even the burial mask of King Tutankhamun is heavily inlaid with lapis lazuli.
Lapis lazuli is such a powerful blue color that the stone has given name to the color across several cultures. Lapis means stone in Latin. The Latin language took the color word lazuli from the Arabs who took it from the Persians, who called the stone itself, lazaward. The Spanish use the word azul for blue, the Italians use azzurro, and of course eventually, John Keats wrote the beautiful verse:
"And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d."
Ancient mineralogy texts propose lapis as a cure for melancholy and also as a talisman to drive away fear and anxiety from children. Scribes used it for ink-making, and artists too have made use of the richly colored stone by crushing and mixing it with binding agents to create the paint color known as ultramarine. Prior to the invention of synthetic paints in 1828, lapis was among one of the only ways to render the color blue. Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer extensively used ultramarine paint crafted from lapis lazuli, most notably in his paintings “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”
However, the most popular and recognizable use of lapis is for items of jewelry and adornment, which extends back nearly as far as the discovery of the stone itself. The Romans decorated themselves with strands of lapis beads, thought to have aphrodisiac qualities, the Egyptians carved it into scarab shaped amulets as elements of protection, and the Greeks studded bracelets with small lapis rounds.
Lapis’s soft nature allows for easy carving, but it often takes the form of beads and cabochons, domed stones with a flat bottom and polished surface. These methods of working the stone allow its natural luster and distinct pyrite patterning to truly sing.
With the advent of more advanced lapidary technology available at the end of the 19th century, jewelers were able to manipulate stones with more detailed precision. The Victorian period saw minute lapis chips laid preciously into micro-mosaic portraits, and during the early 20th century, jewelers began setting diamonds and other more precious stones onto the surface of sculpted lapis forms.
Today, this royal rock is just as popular as it was 10,000 years ago, its versatile nature making it easy to mix into any wardrobe or season. For fall, we love an oversized lapis pendant, such as the one below by the British scupltor-jeweler-netsuke artist, George Weil, paired with the richly printed, nomadic textiles seen at Hermes or Valentino. Or, try a sleek cocktail ring with a graphic shift dress by Gucci or Saint Laurent for a fresh take on 1960s style. For those born in September, lapis is also considered an alternative birthstone. As the Spring/Summer 2015 shows unfold at New York Fashion Week, we see lapis pairing nicely with lush textiles in muted tones from The Row.