A piece of lapis with a wire work bail I made to echo its pyrite sparkles.
Lapis is sometimes considered a secondary birthstone to sapphire. That’s probably due to its brilliant blue color, and the fact that through the middle ages the word sapphire was used pretty loosely!
Lapis is a vibrant blue stone consisting of lazurite and usually pyrite and sodalite as well as a host of other minerals. It’s the pyrite that gives lapis its midnight sparkle of stars.
It’s used in jewelry, mosaics, carving, decorative objects and as a pigment.
It can be found in many places throughout the world, but the oldest mines were in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they’re still the primary sources.
Lapis has its own illustrious history. It’s been mined for around 9000 years. Lapis beads have been found in Neolithic burials, it was used as an inlay in King Tut’s famous mask, and (avert your eyes, sensitive souls) in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was ground up to make ultramarine-the finest and costliest blue pigment. Ultramarine was often reserved for religious paintings.
If you ever wondered why the Virgin’s robe is the richest blue in most paintings, lapis is why. Botticelli’s Annunciation is a great example of the use of ultramarine.
In ancient times lapis was valued throughout the Mediterranean as well as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. Stories say that the Sumerian city of Ur did a brisk trade in lapis, and 6000 years ago Egyptians trekked 3000 miles to bring it home.
The name always confused me-ultramarine-it sounds like its named after the sea, and it is, but not due to its color. Ultramarine means beyond the sea, because lapis was imported across the sea from Afghanistan.
Ancients used it in sculpture and inlay, but all those other minerals made it brutally difficult to make into an equally beautiful pigment. It has to be round and go through several steps of grinding and pounding and treatment with lye to extract the blue alone.
In Afghanistan they figured it out around 1500 years ago (most of the known examples from this era were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001), but the secret didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages.
In medieval art the Virgin Mary was associated with blue, so artists used this most expensive pigment to emphasize her importance. Like lapis jewelry to the ancients, ultramarine pigment in paintings or manuscripts was a way of flashing wealth.
Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring subtly radiates money and the exotic with its larger than life pearl earring and blue turban painted with pigments from a distant land.
The French offered a prize for the creation of a synthetic ultramarine-bad enough it was an increasingly expensive pigment, but even worse the English controlled most of the trade routes. In 1834 two chemists discovered how to create artificial ultramarine. It was called French ultramarine to differentiate it from the original. So lapis no longer dies for art, except for paint used in art restoration!
P.S.- A warning to the shopper. Lapis lazuli can be confused with one of its component minerals, sodalite, which is also often used in jewelry and decorative carving. But sodalite is a different blue-a slightly more grey type of blue ranging from royal to denim, and often has white veining.