What Is Lapis Lazuli?

By Katie Critchfield on August 10 2018 in Environment

A polished lapis lazuli rock.
A polished lapis lazuli rock.

Lapis lazuli is a precious gemstone most well-known for its bright blue color. It is formed when the minerals of lazurite, calcite, and pyrite meld together by heat within metamorphic rock. It is mostly found in Afghanistan, though the mining of the stone is destructive and very controversial. In ancient times, lapis lazuli was seen as a clear sign of wealth.

What is Lapis Lazuli?

Mostly due to its deep blue color, lapis lazuli was historically seen as a way to showcase wealth and power. It was worn by ancient Pharaohs, Kings, and Emperors alike. The golden specs of pyrites give the stone an even richer appearance. Lapis lazuli mostly contains the mineral Lazurite, as well as Calcite, Pyrite, and small quantities of various other materials as impurities. Lapis lazuli has a hardness of between 5 to 5.5.

To form a Lapis lazuli stone there must be a mixture of three essential minerals: lazurite, calcite, and pyrite. The gemstones are found in metamorphic rocks that have variable compositions and physical properties. These minerals are often mixed together due to the magmatic heat flowing into other, cooler deposits of more abundant rocks, such as limestone, that Lazurite, Calcite, and Pyrite are found lying within.

Where is Lapis Lazuli Found?

Lapis lazuli was discovered around 6,000 years ago in the West Hindu-Kush Mountains of present-day Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan continues to be the leading producer of the gem. Other countries involved in production include Angola, Argentina, Canada, Chile, India, Italy, Myanmar, Pakistan, the United States, and Russia.

Lapis lazuli lies at the center of a very competitive market, especially for the locals mining the rock in Afghanistan who often put their lives in danger in order to mine. In fact, in many places there the mining of the stone was illegal up until recently. Explosives are used to blast these rocks out of caves in mountains, where deposits of the gem can be found. This process is repeated until Lapis lazuli deposits are found. Due to controversies and secrecy regarding the extraction practices, locations, and richness of Lapis lazuli deposits, exact production output numbers and reserve sizes are difficult to estimate.

What is Lapis Lazuli Used For?

Given that "Lapis" means "stone" in Latin, and "Azula" means "blue" in Arabic, the name of the stone literally represents its appearance. It is known for being one of the most expensive gemstones in the world, with a wholesale price tag of around $1,620 USD for a 72.4 mm piece. For thousands of years, the gem has have been a valuable asset, and a mineral commonly forged into different types of jewelry including necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Raw lapis lazuli is also often referenced in many historical illustrations as being a healing product. However, whether or not the gem has real healing properties is up for debate.


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