Lapis Lazuli: A Gem from the Arabian Nights
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Lapis Lazuli, its colour often compared to the sky, is a semi-precious stone valued for its brilliant blue tone. Drawing its name from lapis, the Latin word for stone, and the Persian word azul, the colour azure, it came into English by way of the Arabic lazaward. The stone offers admirers its fairytale colour and the reflection of its golden pyrite flecks – attributes that have fascinated men and women for untold centuries. Consisting of a mixture of minerals of varying proportions, its deep blue colour varies from stone to stone, giving it a unique stature among the gems. A treasure straight out of the Arabian Nights, it looks back on a history as old as civilization.
Mined in Afghanistan some six thousand years ago, this opaque gemstone was one of the first stones ever to be worn by humans for jewellery. Peoples of the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Persia, China, and the Indian sub-continent, Myanmar, Greece and Rome were enamoured with the deep blue colour of Lapis Lazuli. Samples of jewellery crafted from this gem have been found in all these venerable lands.
The ancient Egyptians, who in their burial ceremonies employed Lapis Lazuli carved in the shape of eyes and decorated with gold and inscribed in the 140th chapter in the book of the Dead, considered the eyes, amulets of great power. They also employed it for cosmetic purposes, carved it into figurines, jewellery and vases, as a dye for clothing, while their queens, including Cleopatra, used it for eye shadow.
In the historical city of Ur, kings used Lapis Lazuli to sharpen their swords, believing that it would make them invulnerable. The Assyrians and Persians used it in making royal seals and the Romans employed pulverized Lapis Lazuli as an aphrodisiac and an antidote to poisons.
In a number of oriental cultures, Lapis Lazuli was worshiped as a holy stone with magical powers. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, Lapis Lazuli was ground into powder and was used to make lacquers and a glittering blue paint, called ultramarine, used by the Grand Old Masters to beautify many masterpieces and to decorate hand written manuscripts. Ultramarine, after centuries, still displays its splendour in many works of art like the portraits of the Virgin Mary. Even today, the blue pigment derived from Lapis Lazuli is still used by some artists, especially for renovations and restorations.
Lapis Lazuli was also used in commesso, a kind of Florentine mosaic, developed in the16th century. This was a type of inlaying – a technique of fashioning illustrations from very thin, cut-to-shape, Lapis Lazuli and, at times, other semiprecious stones.
Much folklore has been associated with Lapis Lazuli. The ancient Egyptians held that it was sacred to the goddess Isis and held the energy of the star-studded sky. It is said that King Solomon, was given a Lapis Lazuli ring by an angel, enabling him to build the Great Temple and to control demons. In Persian legends, the color of the sky results from the earth resting on a massive slab of Lapis Lazuli. Even today, for many people, Lapis Lazuli is considered to be a stone of truth and friendship and brings about fidelity in marriage.
Among the many other folkloric attributes of the gem are: the stone can be worn for protection against danger; gives one wisdom, induces peaceful sleep and prophetic dreaming; provides mental clarity and awareness; increases psychic abilities, and enhances creative self- expression.
Lapis Lazuli, is the traditional birthstone for December, as well as the Planetary stone for Capricorn and the birthstone for Libra. Also, it is the anniversary gem for the 7th and 9th years of marriage.
As well, numerous healing qualities have been associated with Lapis Lazuli. Medieval doctors prescribed the gem as a relief for fever and throat pain; as an aid in easing lung infections and eliminating negative emotions; in overcoming insomnia; as an aid in repairing broken bones; as an antidote for poisons; in treating eye ailments, purifying the blood and boosting the immune system.
A soft stone, between 5 and 6 on the Mohs scale, Lapis Lazuli, is a mineral consisting usually mainly of aluminum, calcite, lazurite, pyrite, and silica. It was formed millions of years ago in the course of a transformation process, turning chalk into marble stone. Usually found embedded in limestone and granite, which have been liquefied by running lava, they are, when mined and unpolished, in the main, dull and dark blue and unearthed in masses rather in crystals. However, this ancient gem has been found in greenish blue, red, violet and a number of other colors, but the intense deep blue is the most prized of the colors
True Lapis Lazuli, can be easily identified by cutters of the stone. As soon as the stone comes into contact with the cutting wheel it will emanate a typical, slightly rank smell. An experienced cutter will thus recognize the true stone. Because of its softness, when polishing, the stone must be treated gently. If the stone has been dulled because of having been worn too often, it can be easily polished. On the other hand, buyers must always beware that there is often artificially colored Lapis Lazuli on sale.
In present times, the surface of Lapis Lazuli is often sealed with colorless wax or synthetic resin. This procedure serves to improve the resistance of the stone to wear and protects it from acid substances or from excessive exposure to sunlight. The stone can be easily scratched or chipped and water can dissolve the protective coating, hence, for cleaning only a soft dry cloth should be used.
As it has been for thousands of years, the finest quality of Lapis Lazuli still comes from the Hindukush Mountains in Afghanistan. However, even though rare everywhere, it is also found in Chile and Russia, and in smaller amounts in Canada, Italy, Myanmar, Mongolia, Pakistan, Turkey, and the USA.
Lapis Lazuli gemstones are available in widely varying price ranges – from affordable to those looking for luxury jewelry. The price asked depends on the stone’s beauty and deepness of color. It appears as it has for untold centuries, that this gem from the Arabian Nights, shows remarkable adaptability to the changing fashion trends throughout the ages.