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.
Lazurite crystal (lapis lazuli) and pyrite on marble. 5.2 x 4.0 x 3.7 cm. Sar-e-Sang District, Koksha Valley, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan. © Rob Lavinsky, www.iRocks.com. Used with permission.
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.
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.
Only Afghanistan and Pakistan yield the finest lapis lazuli in commercially interesting quantities. 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.
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.
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.