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Lapis Lazuli Properties, Facts and Photos

Contents

1. Lapis Lazuli Meaning
2. History of Lapis Lazuli
3. Mask of Tutankhamun
4. What is Lapis Lazuli?
5. Fake Lapis Lazuli
6. Lapis Lazuli Properties
7. Article Pictures
8  Shop Lapis Lazuli

The Meaning of Lapis Lazuli

The name 'lapis lazuli' translates to 'stone from the sky' or 'stone from heaven'. 

'Lapis' comes from Latin for 'stone', while 'lazuli' comes from 'lazulum', which in turn comes from the Arabic word 'lāzaward'.

'Lāzaward' comes from the Persian word 'lājevard'.  These words all relate to the 'sky' or 'heaven' in reference to lapis lazuli's deep blue colour.

Lapis lazuli has a long and interesting history.  It was first mined and used by civilisations that lived in what is today, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Persian word 'lājevard' is likely to have been the original name.

As lapis lazuli travelled along ancient trade routes and became more widely known, the Arabic word 'lāzaward' would have emerged.  The name would have changed from Arabic to Latin as it reached Europe.

Although not related to the meaning of 'lapis lazuli', the golden inclusions of pyrite have been likened to stars in the sky.

Today, the word 'azul' from the Latin 'lazulum' is used in several languages for the word blue.

History of Lapis Lazuli

The history of lapis lazuli can be traced back thousands of years.  It's one of the oldest and best-known gemstones.

It was highly sought after by some of the earliest civilisations including Babylonia, Ur and ancient Egypt.  It was carved into amulets and talismans and used for jewellery and in religious ceremonies.

Lapis lazuli carvings found in ancient Egyptian tombs, including King Tutankhamun's, date back 3000 years BC.  The boy king's funerary mask is one of the world's most famous artefacts.

This priceless work of art features lapis lazuli, white quartz, obsidian, turquoise, carnelian and coloured glass.

In his work 'Theophrastus on Stones, the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote about lapis lazuli.  It was in the group called "valuable stones".

Three hundred and fifty years later, Pliny the Elder, Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, described lapis lazuli as "a blue stone with spots of gold that was never transparent."

The spots of gold referred to the inclusions of pyrite.  At this time, the mineral pyrite was relatively unknown.

When comparing lapis to azurite, Pliny said, "Lapis lazuli coloured like azurite is considered to be male".

In ancient times, stones were either male or female.  Darker stones with more distinctive characteristics were male, and those with less colour were female.

Blue stones with a more solid colour that didn't feature inclusions of pyrite were known as 'cyanus'.  It's believed the name is likely to have incorporated other dark blue-coloured stones as well.

In modern times, lapis lazuli has often been confused for sapphire, not because of any visible similarities or characteristics, but because in the ancient world lapis lazuli was known as sapphirus.

Pliny wrote, "Sapphirus included with spots of gold is not suitable for engraving."  This is likely to be because the pyrite was too hard to cut through.

In ancient Egypt, lapis lazuli was believed to open the heart to love and lead the soul into immortality.  The book of Exodus states sapphirus was one of the twelve precious gemstones in the breastplate of the Jewish high priest.

During excavations of the royal graves in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, artefacts featuring gold, silver and gemstones were discovered.  Many exhibited exceptional craftsmanship, skill and artistry.

The wide range of materials indicates not only the presence of huge wealth but also an extensive network of trade. This is apparent because many of the stones and metals are not found in the region.

Sumer was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq.  It was home to one of the earliest civilisations. Over 6000 items carved from lapis lazuli were found there.

The stone is believed to have come from Afghanistan.  From there it would have been transported to countries including Mesopotamia, Ur, Egypt and India.

The 'golden lyre of Ur' is crafted from gold and lapis lazuli.  It was found in the grave of a king during a 1928 British Museum expedition to Ur (modern-day Iraq).

It's a fine example of ancient Sumerian art, dated to approximately 3500 BC. The lapis lazuli necklace in the next photo comes from the same location.

The pictures link to a collection of great photos of the golden lyre of Ur. 

What is Lapis Lazuli?

Lapis lazuli is a blue metamorphic rock.  Because it's composed of several minerals, it's classified as a rock, not a mineral.

It can only be found in a few places around the world because specific geological conditions are required for it to form.

In recent years, this has helped historians reconstruct ancient trade routes.

The pyrite inclusions in lapis lazuli are in the mineral lazurite.  Lazurite is one of several minerals that make up lapis lazuli and it's also responsible for the stone's blue colour.

Other minerals present can include white calcite, diopside, enstatite, mica, sodalite, haüyne, (I believe lazurite is a variety of haüyne ) and hornblende.

Ultramarine, a highly sought-after deep blue pigment, was used in art, particularly paintings, from ancient times until 1826.  It was made from the mineral lazurite, but lapis lazuli was often used instead because lazurite was extremely rare.

It was once said that ultramarine was more valuable than gold.  It stopped being used when a synthetic alternative was produced.  

Some claim Michelangelo's 'The Entombment', was unfinished because he couldn't afford ultramarine.  It may also have been because the pigment was in short supply.

The Italian painter Rafael, known for his frescoes, particularly those in the Vatican, is said to have only used ultramarine for the final coat of his paintings.  However, it's believed he may have chosen azurite instead for the base layers because it was cheaper.

Most of the world's lapis lazuli comes from the Sar-e Sang deposit in Badakhshan province, northeast Afghanistan.  It has been mined there for more than 6,500 years.

As well as being some of the world's oldest mines, they're also the most difficult to reach.  The only access is by a network of narrow trails high up on treacherous slopes in the Hindu-Kush Mountains.

Although several mines were once in operation, today only one is in use.

Lapis lazuli can also be found in Siberia and Chile.  In recent years, some stone from Chile has rivalled the quality of material from Afghanistan.

It can also be found in a few other countries but in relatively small quantities.

On the Mohs scale of hardness, lapis lazuli grades 5 to 5.5.  This means it scratches quite easily.

Afghan man sitting on the floor polishing lapis lazuli with a stone polishing machine

How to Identify Fake Lapis Lazuli

Other natural minerals are often used to produce fake lapis lazuli.  Sodalite, azurite and calcite are some of the most common.

Low-grade lapis lazuli is often dyed to make it look more visually appealing.  Paraffin is then used to seal the dye and improve the polish.

Another trick used when producing fake lapis lazuli is to just dye the white calcite.

If a stone has been dyed it should come off when touched with a cotton bud dipped in acetone (nail polish remover) or diluted hydrochloric acid.

The colour of genuine lapis lazuli is stable so a dyed stone will fade in bright sunlight or when exposed to high temperatures.

If a stone has a suspicious-looking mark you could prick it with a hot needle.  If plastic, paraffin or another type of filler has been used you should smell it.

The problem with most tests to establish whether any rock or mineral is genuine is that some level of damage will be caused.

Weight could be a clue depending on what material has been used to produce fake lapis lazuli.  Sodalite is lighter.


Most lapis contains pyrite and it's not possible to reproduce these golden-coloured inclusions.

Properties of Lapis Lazuli

Lapis lazuli is a deeply spiritual stone.  It encourages the truth to be spoken and promotes inner peace, harmony and serenity.

It expands intellectual capacity and awareness and stimulates clarity of mind.

The healing properties of lapis lazuli make it useful for those looking to bring more structure and organisation into their lives.

It has long been used to protect against dark forces.

Lapis lazuli can strengthen your connection with your higher self.  It can also be used to enhance meditation.

Holding a stone or having it close by can help bring thoughts and feelings together.  It can guide you towards finding that idyllic place where everything is in perfect harmony.

Lapis lazuli can help you tap into your inner wisdom and intuition.  It calms the mind and unleashes a world of possibilities.

It's sometimes used for dreamwork and also strengthens psychic ability and blocks negative energy.  Its calming energy makes it ideal for dealing with stress. 

Lapis lazuli encourages creativity, clears the mind to make room for new ideas and inspires confidence.  It boosts feelings of happiness and contentment and helps build trust and harmony in a new relationship.

Article Pictures

The picture at the top of our article is courtesy of James St.John.  The lapis lazuli tumbled stones are from our collection.

The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun is housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  The golden lyre of Ur and lapis lazuli necklace are in the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

The final photo is lapis lazuli being polished in Afghanistan.

All pictures except the last one are clickable.

Pop-up photos: The snow quartz tumbled stones and mica are part of our collection.  The turquoise and also the azurite are courtesy of Stan Celestian.  Originals are here and here.

The diopside is courtesy of The Arkenstone, original photo here.  The haüyne is courtesy of Géry Parent, original here.  

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