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Lapis Lazuli
By Chuck Boblenz

Logo - California Federation of Mineralogical Societies
(reprinted from Breccia - March 2008)

Introduction

Lapis Lazuli has intrigued people around the world for centuries. Its vivid, exciting blue color has mesmerized those admiring the works of art and jewelry. The list of admirers include people from every walk of life and include kings and emperors. This intrigue is caused by the spectacular deep, vivid blue color. In fact, it is so distinct a color that it is hard not to notice it when worn in jewelry or seen in the rough.

History

In the early years of 3300 B.C., in the country we know as Iraq and along the Euphrates River which flows through the country pieces of Lapis Lazuli were found. The pieces being found at this time were finished gems and jewelry found in the Sumerian tombs from earlier civilizations. These pieces had been carved into the forms of birds, deer and rodents having been made into dishes, vases, beads and cylindrical seals used in the times of the Sumerians.

Later in the 1330 B.C. years, thousands of similar jewelry items were buried with King Tut . These pieces used Lapis Lazuli extensively making use of the contrast of gold and the deep blue color to attract ones eye. Many of these were items were displayed in a traveling display several years ago.

Pliny writes of sapphires of both “light and dark blue” in the year 79 A.D. It is believed that his reference to sapphires of dark blue was aimed at describing Lapis Lazuli. In fact, so little had been written till this time allowing some historians to concern about interpretations of these early writings which have been found.

In the years of the 1200’s the Pope had heard of vast lands to the east called the Mongol Empire. His learned from the many traders and adventurers returning to Rome of this vast land and its people. This information caused him to follow his tradition and to introduce these peoples to Christianity.

In 1245 the Pope selected Giovani de Piano Carpini to go to the east and seek the lands of Gingis Khan. Carpini was able to travel to the northern reaches of the Gobi Desert. In these travels he did meet the Khan, but was not successful in converting him to Christianity.

Upon hearing of Carpini’s return to Rome and receiving his report, the Pope sent Guilliame de Rubrouck with the same charter to locate the Great Khan and to convert him to Christianity. Rubrouck traveled further east surpassing Carpini in his travels and succeeded in getting to Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol Empire; however, he was equally not successful in converting the Khan before returning to Rome.

In 1260 two brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, set out from Venice eastward toward Constantinople. Soon after they started their journey, they decided to extend their trip and to allow geography and economics to direct the direction that they went. This decision was monumental in that it allowed them to be the first “Latins” to cross the full Asian continent.

These travels allowed the brother’s to meet Kublai Khan’s cousin, Barka. This friendship caused them to spend a year in Barka’s domain dealing in fine gems and jewels from the area. As the second year was beginning a war was brewing causing the brothers to again start their journey.

As they were leaving they found that their way was blocked by the war, so chose to go north into an area governed by the Khan of Turkistan. They then remained in this area for three years.

Barka’s domain included the present country of Afghanistan and allowed the Polo brothers to see the many mines in the northern part near the Oxus River. This is the locale where early Lapis Lazuli is found. The brother’s keen interest in gems and jewelry caused them to barter and trade for this fine material.

During the brothers stay in this part of the Mongol Empire, they succeeded in meeting the Great Khan. During one of their meetings the Great Khan gave them a message to be given to the Pope and he assured their safe passage back with a golden tablet with the mark of his seal upon it.

With this passport, they safely returned to Venice with great wealth and many stories of adventure and were soon preparing for a return trip to the Khan’s Empire. On this trip Niccolo’s son, Marco, joined the brothers and found great acceptance into the Mongol Empire by the Khan’s. This began a number of trips for Marco over the next two decades where he acquired and traded the prized Lapis Lazuli throughout these journeys.

Some of this material was traded, or bartered, along the way but some did remain in their stock as they returned to Rome. Upon their return some clever merchants found that they could grind up this blue stone, mix it with oils and sell it to women of the Empire for eye shadow. The striking blue of this material became the fashionable look of this era enhancing the demand for Lapis Lazuli.

Leonardo de Vinci sought honest paint dealers that would take Lapis Lazuli powder and mix it into their paints which he sought for that particular blue in his paintings.

It should be noted that there were also dishonest paint dealers during this time and they found that they could substitute Azurite for the bluing agent and sell a similar colored paint. The unfortunate thing that happens to the paint mixed with Azurite is that after a period of time it will turn a very bright green much to the embarrassment of the artisan and causes a deep concern for the paint dealer. This green color is caused by the copper in Azurite turning it to Malachite over time.

Detail

Lapis Lazuli is pronounced Lap’ is laz-yoo’le. The first word has the emphasis placed on lap’ and the smaller emphasis on the is; the second word laz has a long a and the yoo’ sounds like you and le sounds like lay. Go ahead and try it. Its easy to pronounce, isn’t it?

The dictionary describes it as: 1. An opaque, azure-blue to deep-blue gemstone of Lazurite; 2. A mineral, Lazurite. [ Latin lapis, stone + Medieval Latin lazuli, genitive of lazulum, lapis lazuli, from Arabic lazaward, from Persian lazhuward.]

Lapis Lazuli is a rock. The blue material tat first strikes our eye is Lazurite. It is the midnight blue material and is sodium aluminum silicate. The next attractive material is metallic and looks very bright and shiny. It is Pyrite and the remaining white streaks are Calcite.

The most prized of this material is extremely dark blue in color, in fact, almost midnight black; is very hard and takes a very good polish; has very small amounts of pyrite and almost no calcite. This dark blue of Lapis Lazuli is much more intense than Sodalite or Azurite and is much more valued.

Each of the lesser grades of Lapis Lazuli will have varying amounts of Pyrite and Calcite in each piece and can have varieties in color from light blue to the most vivid of blues.

The Chilean and Russian Lapis Lazuli is often lighter in color due to a higher content of calcite and results in a lower value. All material shows an amount of pyrite, but if too much is prevalent, then the stone can gain a green patina with age.

Lapis Lazuli

Formula: Na8(Al6Si6O24)S2, Sodium Aluminum Silicate
Color: Blue
Hardness: 5 – 6
Specific Gravity: 2.4 – 2.9
Streak: Light blue
Fracture: Conchoidal, grainy
Localities:
Afghanistan:West Hindu Kush Mountains
Russia:Baikal Lake, southwest end of lake
Chile:North of Santiago

Lapidary Treatment

Use normal lapidary treatment through the number of grit sizes; however, use caution when going above 600 grit of heat build-up. Too much heat can cause the piece to fracture and/or shatter so use caution.

Lapis Lazuli can be used in any silver, gold or platinum jewelry and will provide instant appeal in its contrast to the metal work.

Conclusion

I hope that you have now been introduced to Lapis Lazuli. ‘Tis a stone through the ages and is fun to work with. I hope this will cause you to find the pieces you may have stashed away and to get them out and decide to work them into some super piece of jewelry. As you have noted here it will undoubtedly draw much attention to you wherever you may wear or show it.

So take that step right now and I believe you will find it very enjoyable.

Chuck Boblenz
7 Nov 2007