What Is Lapis Lazuli?

A symbol of wealth in the earliest great human civilizations.


The mesmerizing mineral Lapis lazuli is like something straight out of a dream. Its dazzling blue color is very rich, and emits a sense of glamor and importance for those who wear it. This is hence why the gemstone was worn by ancient Pharaohs, Kings, and Emperors alike, serving as a great way to showcase their wealth and power. Its color is an obvious deep blue, but what’s most extraordinary about Lapis lazuli is the golden specs of pyrites which give the stone an even richer appearance. The stone falls between approximately 5 and 5.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness, and has a 1.5 refraction index. Lapis lazuli mostly contains the mineral Lazurite, as well as Calcite, Pyrite, and small quantities of various other materials as impurities.


The discovery of Lapis lazuli was thought to have first occurred around 6,000 years ago, in the West Hindu-Kush Mountains of what is now Afghanistan. Still today, Afghanistan is the leading producer of the gem. Afghanis are followed in Lapis lazuli production by such other leading countries as Angola, Argentina, Canada, Chile, India, Italy, Myanmar, Pakistan, the U.S, and Russia. Depending on the region wherein particular Lapis lazuli deposits are found, they may be more sulphide- or sulphate-dominate.


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 which have variable compositions and physical properties. These are often formed together into Lapis Lazuli due to magmatic heat flowing into other, cooler deposits of more abundant rocks, such as limestone, that Lazurite, Calcite, and Pyrite are found lying within.


Given that ‘Lapis’ means 'stone' in Latin, and ‘Azula’ means 'blue' in Arabic, the name of the stone literally represents its appearance. It’s radiant color has been described as “the most expensive blue of all time” by gemstone.org. This is possibly because of its price tag of $1,620 USD for a 72.4mm piece, and that’s at a wholesale price, with retail rates running much higher still. For thousands of years, the gem has have been a valuable asset, and a mineral forged into such jewelry as necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Along with its obvious uses in jewelry, Lapis lazuli is often referenced in many historical illustrations as being a healing product, however it is very controversial whether it actually works or not in combatting physical ailments.


Lapis lazuli lies at the center of a very competitive market, especially for locals mining the rock in Afghanistan, who are often killed over access to Lapis lazuli deposits. In fact, in many places there the mining of the stone was up until recently actually illegal. Explosives are used to blast these rocks out of caves in mountains, where deposits of the gem can be found, chiseling it out of surrounding also being used for extraction. Such processes are 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.

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