Celestial blue, flecked with gold, the gemstone Lapis Lazuli has a long and fascinating history that includes spice merchants, Pharaohs and artists.
What's in a Name?
The name Lapis Lazuli refers not only to the wonderful blue colour of this fascinating gemstone, but also points to the location in Badakhshan, where it has been mined for over 6,000 years. Lapis comes from the Latin word for ‘stone'. Lazuli comes from the Arabic word لازورد lāzaward (itself from the Persian word lāžaward) referring to the site of the ancient lapis mines in the Blue Mountains overlooking the Kokcha River in Badakhshan. These mines in the Hindu Kush mountains are some of the oldest in the world. From as early as the second half of the 4th millennium BC they were the sole source of Lapis Lazuli. Merchants travelling the Spice Road would carry this precious gem from remote Badakhshan to trade in the markets of Ancient Greece, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt.
For centuries, the rarity and beauty of Lapis Lazuli has made it a precious commodity. We perhaps associate it most with Ancient Egypt, where the colour blue had deep significance. Revered as representing the heavens and the universe, as well as water and the River Nile, blue signified life, fertility and rebirth. For their wall paintings, statues and some tomb decorations, the Egyptians used a pigment known as Egyptian Blue - a calcium copper silicate. Egyptian blue was used to produce a ceramic glaze known as Egyptian faience. Precious Lapis Lazuli, sourced in Afghanistan and carried all the way to Egypt by those ancient traders, was reserved for special use. Lapis was used in the jewellery of the Pharaohs, set with gold, carved into scarab beetles and used in powerful amulets. And, as Queen, Cleopatra could afford to have Lapis ground to make eye shadow!
Mediaeval artists used Lapis Lazuli to make a very special blue paint:- - Ultramarine. The blue colour of Lapis rock comes from the mineral lazurite (a sulfate) and to produce around 30g of Ultramarine pigment, 1kg of the precious Lapis was ground into fine powder, mixed with wax, oils and pine resin and kneaded with a dilute lye solution. Ultramarine pigment was more precious than gold! Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was used sparingly by artists:- reserved to paint details on Heavenly subjects, the robes of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Later, in the 17th Century, the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer used the pigment more extensively in almost all of his paintings, most famously on the blue turban of his painting Girl with the Pearl Earring.
Symbol of Truth & Wisdom
Lapis Lazuli has long been associated with strength and courage, royalty and wisdom, and, perhaps above all, as a symbol of intellect and truth. It is believed to assist in opening the Third Eye, leading you to greater insight and enlightenment, and is the birthstone for December.
Lapis Lazuli in Indigo Berry Jewellery
I always feel immensely privileged when I use Lapis Lazuli in my work. Living in the Isle of Skye, surrounded by water, this blue gemstone often inspires designs which refer to water and the sea. We also enjoy some pretty amazing evening skies here too - especially in winter when the Milky Way and a host of stars and planets are clearly visible against an ink blue canopy:- blue Lapis Lazuli studded with gold. That classic combination, so beloved by the Ancient Egyptians also appears in Celtic art - another reference for my work.
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