Lapis Lazuli: Starlit Sky Gemstone
One of the oldest gemstones known to man, lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan for over 6000 years.
With its deep blue color and golden sparkle inclusions, it is no wonder that this gemstone has captivated an audience for this long.
Its extensive use in fashion, wide availability and low price makes it unlikely that this will change any time soon.
What is Lapis Lazuli?
Lapis lazuli is not a mineral like a lot of other gemstones, instead it is a type of rock that consists of other minerals. Lazurite is the main component giving lapis lazuli its blue color.
The name lapis lazuli comes from the Latin word for stone ‘lapis’ and a place in Persia where lapis lazuli was mined ‘Lazhward’.
Lapis Lazuli is a fairly soft stone with a hardness of 5 to 5.5 on Mohs scale of hardness. Most often it is polished into a cabochon shape, though carvings are quite common as well. Faceted stones are available as well, though most often in the form of lapis lazuli beads.
Lapis lazuli ore is still being mined in Afghanistan, which produces the highest quality that can be found. Other countries that produce this blue gemstone are: Russia, Chile, Italy, Pakistan and the USA among others. Most of these localities however only produce low or medium quality stones which makes high quality lapis lazuli quite rare despite the amount of stones produced every year.
History of Lapis Lazuli
This popular gemstone was used for more general decorative purposes such as mosaics and floors as well. It has been traded for over 6000 years and has been found in numerous archaeological dig-sites.
From Egypt, Persia and Rome to Mesopotamia and Babylonia every civilization around the Mediterranean for the last thousands of years has made use of this gemstone.
Another use of lapis lazuli was as a dye in paint, producing a higher quality paint than turquoise. Almost all high quality paintings used ground up lapis lazuli as the basis for the color blue, called ultramarine. This was quite expensive as only high quality stones could be used for this practice.
Fortunately in the early 19th century a synthetic variety of the ultramarine paint became available. Today natural ultramarine paint is only used for restoration of old paintings.
Taking Care of Your Lapis Lazuli Gemstones
Lapis Lazuli can be worn every day, but there are still some things you need to be aware of when you want to keep your gemstone beautiful:
- The low hardness of lapis lazuli makes it important to avoid physical labor while wearing it.
- Chemicals, acids and heating can all cause irreparable damage to this gemstone and should be avoided. This means that you should not be using jewelry cleaners, ultrasonic or steam jewelry cleaners and should not let it soak in hot or boiling water.
- The best way to clean lapis lazuli is simply with some warm water with a mild soap and soft brush. Do not let the stone soak and make sure to dry it afterwards, the calcite in this stone can dissolve in water and this could damage and weaken it.
- Store it away from other jewelry and gemstones as it can be damaged by faceted gemstones like tanzanite or zultanite.
If your lapis lazuli jewelry starts losing its shine you can get it re-polished. However I would advise keeping this to a minimum because not only can it be expensive, it will also make your stone a bit smaller every time it is done.
Lapis Lazuli Buying Guide
The most important property for determining lapis lazuli price is the color. The deeper the blue and the better the distribution of it the higher the value is for a true gem collector.
However for lapis lazuli jewelry pyrite inclusions are extremely important as well, though there should not be too many of it and it should not be clustered. Calcite inclusions, which can often be seen as white veins, lower lapis lazuli value.
Gemstone enhancements are regularly seen and the most common of these is waxing or oiling the stone to improve its appearance and to better protect it. A more nefarious enhancement, because it often is not disclosed, is dyeing. Glossing over calcite inclusions or even completely changing the color to a deeper blue to improve prices.
Make sure all enhancements are disclosed before buying, one way to check for these enhancements is to dab a stone with a Q-tip that has some nail polish remover on it.
Synthetic lapis lazuli is on the market, some of it even contains pyrite flakes to make it look more authentic, but it can be recognized due to its lack of calcite inclusions. Other minerals and rocks that are dyed to look like lapis lazuli are chalcedonies and jasper.
Reconstituted lapis lazuli is made as well, smaller fragments that have a low value are ground up and pressed into a new form after adding glue. It can be quite hard to identify these enhancements and simulant stones and the best way to avoid them is, as always, to only buy lapis lazuli at a shop with a high reputation. More general tips can be found at my guide to buying gemstones online.
There is of course nothing wrong with buying an enhanced or even artificial stone if you prefer them because of price or the conflict free nature of most of these gemstones. You just should not be paying the price of natural lapis lazuli for them.
Very high quality lapis lazuli can be very expensive even today. At the same time most lapis lazuli on the market today can be had for a few dollars per carat. Making this gemstone available to everyone regardless of budget.