Lapis Lazuli, Afghanistan (solid blue), Chile (mottled), cabochons 5 to 25 carats. Photo © Joel E. Arem, PhD, FGA. Used with permission.
Known and used widely since ancient times (perhaps as early as 6,000 BCE), lapis lazuli (or simply lapis) is still popular today. Beads, jewelry, and carvings have been found at numerous archaeological sites. This gemstone has been prized for its bright, blue color and used for inlay and intarsia as well as for pigments for cosmetics and paintings. Its contrast and eye appeal is irresistible. Today, jewelry is its predominant use. Lapis lazuli is frequently set in silver in modestly priced jewelry pieces. However, there is a growing trend to emulate the jewelers of earlier times and set fine-quality stones in gold, complementing diamonds or colored gems. Lapis is well-suited for men’s jewelry because of its rich, blue color (which makes it easy to color coordinate). It’s fairly tough, doesn’t easily show wear, and takes an excellent polish. Lapis lazuli’s rich history and symbolism also makes it a popular jewelry choice for anyone fascinated with the romance of gemstones.
The ancient Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder called lapis lazuli “a fragment of the starry firmament,” in admiration of its colors, deep blue with twinkling bits of gold. Lapis lazuli is actually a rock composed of lazurite, haüyne, sodalite, and nosean, all members of the sodalite group of minerals. (Lazurite itself may be considered a sulfur-rich haüyne). The colors of lapis range from a medium, grayish blue to intense, royal blue, to deep indigo, with varying amounts of white and brassy gold from calcite and pyrite inclusions. Some purists desire a specimen that’s almost entirely lazurite, a deep and uniform blue, but most seek a piece with a moderate to generous sprinkling of golden-colored pyrite.
The use of lapis lazuli for art and jewelry probably originated in Afghanistan and spread to Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and the Roman world. Many of the gemstones referred to as sapphire or sapphirus, “blue stone,” in the Latin-speaking world of classical antiquity may have actually been pieces of lapis lazuli.
Although collectors may debate how much pyrite is ideal in lapis lazuli, most would agree that the less calcite, the better the stone. Calcite can be seen as streaks or patches within the darker blue or can predominate in the mix, giving the rock an overall lighter blue shade. However, it’s not surprising that a stone whose popularity has extended across continents and millennia can reach new markets. Denim and country-western clothing have opened a niche for what once was considered low-quality, virtually unsalable material from Chile. Cleverly dubbed “denim lapis” is now sold widely.
Lapis lazuli has been successfully synthesized by Pierre Gilson of Paris in France and Carroll Chatham in the United States. Many large jewelry supply houses offer the synthetic version, with or without pyrite.
Although these synthetics are modern inventions, lapis lazuli simulants or imitations go back at least as far as Ancient Egyptian times. Artifacts with glass backed with blue paint and blue ceramic materials in lieu of the natural stone have been found. Even the celebrated death mask of King Tutankhamun (1332–1323 BCE), which includes real lapis lazuli inlay for the eyes, has blue-painted glass bands in the nemes or headdress. These imitations are a testament to the ancient demand for lapis.
Modern-era simulants include enamel, glass, plastic, and a variety of dyed gems such as howlite and jasper, which is misleadingly referred to as “Swiss lapis.”
Sodalite is the only natural gemstone readily available in large enough sizes with a deep enough blue to be a convincing lapis simulant.
Acid testing can be used to determine if a lapis specimen is natural. A drop of hydrochloric acid (HCI) on lapis lazuli releases H2S gas, the odor of rotten egg.
Streak testing a natural lapis specimen should leave a light blue streak.
Both acid and streak testing are destructive tests and should only be conducted by a professional gemologist.
The finest lapis lazuli is found only in commercially interesting quantities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Colorado material is quite fine but of limited availability.
- Badakshan, Afghanistan: among the oldest operating mines in the world (7,000 years). Lapis occurs in large blocks and crystals in white matrix. Source of the world’s finest lapis.
- Pakistan: solid, deep blue color with no white calcite spots and just a sprinkling of brassy, yellow pyrite.
- Colorado: stringers in limestone, dark color, with much pyrite, from Italian Mountain in the western part of the state.
- California: blue-gray with white spots.
- Studyanka River, Mongolia: light blue lapis, with pyrite.
- The Chilean Andes: gray and blue mixture, color inferior to Afghan material.
- Italy; Labrador, Canada; Mogok, Myanmar.
Rough blocks of lapis with fine color from Afghanistan are known up to 100 kg. One block of Chilean material, found in a Peruvian grave, was 24” x 12” x 8” in size. A 40.5 cm tall vase of fine blue material is in the Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy.
With a hardness of 5-6, lapis lazuli needs some care as a jewelry stone. Nevertheless, the gemstone is still widely used in rings and bracelets. Choosing protective settings for these uses and occasional wear is recommended. Even with protective care, lapis stones in rings or bracelets may need periodic re-polishing. Pendants, earrings, brooches, and tie or lapel pins can be worn daily with little worry.
The old standby of a soft brush and mild soap is recommended for cleaning lapis lazuli. Avoid mechanical cleaning, such as steam or ultrasonic systems, and chemical solvents.
Consult our Gemstone Care Guide for more information.