True Blue: What You Need to Know About Lapis Lazuli

Lapis lazuli has been coveted across the course of history as a symbol of prestige. From the cylinder seals of ancient Mesopotamia and the famed funerary mask of King Tut to the Renaissance when the luscious blues illuminated masterworks like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes – fast forward over three centuries to Yves Klein and his entire catalog of work in International Klein Blue.

Today, the semi-precious stone still holds remarkable status and can be found in museum collections and in cutting-edge lapis lazuli jewelry designs. What makes lapis lazuli so special? Read on, as we explore the history and significance of this striking mineral.

Lazurite Koksha Valley, Badakshan Province, Afghanistan.

Lazurite. Sold for £1,512 via Christie’s (May 2022).

Lapis Lazuli Basics

Lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone renowned for its compelling deep azure blue hue. It tends to be of a medium hardness, similar to turquoise or opal. Its striking color comes from lazurite, a mineral that can come in a range of blues – from dark blue to greenish shades. Typically accenting the brilliant blue of lazurite are small flecks of golden pyrite; some also have calcite deposits, which appear as soft, sky blue veins.

History and Origins

Surviving artifacts suggest that artisans have used lapis lazuli for nearly 7,000 years. The earliest examples can be traced to Neolithic cultures from ancient Mesopotamia to China. Main sources of lapis lazuli throughout this period were the mines of Bactria, a powerful ancient empire situated in the footprint of modern Afghanistan. Bactria and its mines purportedly provided lapis lazuli for the major empires across the ancient world. So significant were these minds that it has been rumored that merchant Marco Polo marveled at their wealth of ore during his 13th-century travels along the Silk Road. Some of these mines are still producing high-quality lapis lazuli today, but deposits have also been located on other continents as well.

Lapis Lazuli’s Uses

A pair of Egyptian stone lapis eye inlays.

A pair of Egyptian stone lapis eye inlays. Sold for $28,680 via Christie’s (June 2004).

Throughout the ancient world, lapis lazuli was the means for creating an incredible array of objects, from jewelry to sculpture to burial adornment and furniture. So popular was the stone that even famous texts from antiquity speak of its splendors. For example, lapis lazuli is woven throughout the landmark Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest documented examples of literature in human history. By the later Medieval period, artists had devised a way to extend this opulence to their paintings: exported lapis lazuli was ground into a powder to make the pigment known as ultramarine. Artists in the Middle Ages used this luscious hue to illuminate their manuscripts; later, Renaissance artists conveyed some of the most striking skies in all of art history. 

Jewelry

Of all these gemstone applications, lapis lazuli jewelry offers some of the most captivating uses as it showcases the brilliant color and smooth finish that can be achieved when working with the stone. This potential perhaps added to its popularity in the ancient world, as it was used for everything from smoothly polished beads to intricate cameos.

Lapis lazuli amulet depicting the goddess, Maat.

Lapis lazuli amulet depicting the goddess, Maat. Lot of 8 deities) sold for £3,000 via Christie’s (April 2011).

Lapis for Luck

While the stone has taken on various connotations over history, one theme shared across time is the connection between lapis lazuli and good luck or fortune. This perhaps helps to explain the stone’s popularity for votive offerings, from antiquity to nineteenth-century parure sets. There is also the suggestion that lapis lazuli can be associated with wisdom or insight, an idea that might be traceable to the Egyptian deity Maat, the goddess of truth, who was at times immortalized in amulets often worn by her priests.

The Value of Lapis Lazuli

Though not as expensive as gemstones like diamonds or sapphires, lapis lazuli can still reach high price points at auction, depending on the quality and size of the stone.  Typically, the larger the stone the higher the price, but color also plays a role. Stones that offer the richest colors are often more highly prized than those with lighter or spotty colors. Be on the lookout, though, for enhanced lapis lazuli, where inclusions like those of calcite have been dyed to become less apparent in the stone.

Lean in to the lore of Lapis Lazuli

From its irresistible blue color to its incredible use over history, lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone that offers a legacy all of its own. When it comes to jewelry, lapis lazuli is also remarkably versatile in that it can pair perfectly with the warm tones of yellow gold or bright tones of coral red or turquoise teal; it can also serve as a statement piece all its own. Given all these factors, perhaps it’s time to make lapis lazuli your next stone selection.