Lapis lazuli has been used since ancient times and remains popular today. 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.
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Lapis lazuli value is determined almost exclusively by color. A deep, intense, blue with violet tones would be at the apex. Fine grained, uniform specimens can attain a smooth, highly polished surface not seen in lower grades.
Calcite inclusions almost always lower the value, but pyrite inclusions enhance it in the minds of many collectors and jewelry lovers. Although enthusiasts 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.
Polish quality and faceting artistry also affect value.
Stamp seal with monsters, lapis lazuli, Mesopotamia, Neo-Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian or later, second half of 8th-6th century BCE or later. Gift of Nanette B. Kelekian, in memory of Charles Dikran and Beatrice Kelekian, 1999. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.
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 (also simply referred to as lapis) 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.
Archeologists have found lapis lazuli beads, jewelry, and carvings at numerous sites, some dating as early as 6,000 BCE.
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.
Lapis Lazuli Jewelry Trends
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” now sells very well.
Jewelers frequently set lapis lazuli in silver and create modestly priced pieces. However, there is a growing trend to emulate the artisans of earlier times and set fine-quality stones in gold, complementing diamonds or colored gems.
Lapis makes a good choice 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.
Synthetics and Simulants
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. Archeologists have discovered artifacts with glass backed with blue paint and blue ceramic materials in lieu of the natural stone. 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.
Afghanistan has produced rough blocks of lapis up to 100 kg with fine color. 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, you’ll find this gemstone commonly set in rings and bracelets. Use protective settings for these jewelry pieces and reserve them for occasional wear. Even with protective care, lapis stones in rings or bracelets may need periodic re-polishing. On the other hand, you can wear pendants, earrings, brooches, and tie or lapel pins daily with little worry.