Lapis Lazuli's Royal Blue Color Was Once Considered Godlike

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

Lapis lazuli
Lapis lazuli is a rock, which means it consists of three minerals, including lazurite, calcite and pyrite. Gemological Institute of America

This prized material has been used to adorn great works of art from pharaohs' coffins to the Sistine Chapel, and it's also touted for its connection to "cosmic wisdom" and use in feng shui. In fact, it was once more precious than gold. We're talking, of course, about brilliant blue lapis lazuli, which can be found on King Tut's coffin and other funeral items. In crushed form, it became the bluest blue in an artist's palette — ultramarine — so expensive that Michelangelo couldn't afford it.

Today, we may attach a high value to diamonds and rubies, but for centuries, it was the blue of lapis lazuli that ruled the sky and the seas.

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What Is Lapis Lazuli?

"Lapis lazuli is actually a rock, and a lot of people don't realize that," says McKenzie Santimer, manager of Gemological Institute of America's (GIA) Museum and exhibit designer. Its identity as a rock means that it is an aggregate of three minerals or more. In the case of lapis lazuli, those three minerals are lazurite, calcite and pyrite. Lazurite is responsible for the blue color, calcite for the white veining and pyrite for the flashy, sparkly bits.

The name comes from Latin for rock, which is "lapis," and lazuli is derived from the Arabic and Persian word for the place the stone was mined. The Persian word "lāzhward" became Arabic "(al-) lazward" and Latin "lazulum." These names, associated with the stone, later led to the words for blue in languages like Spanish and Italian.

Lapis lazuli ranks a 5.5 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, which is about the same as window glass. (Diamonds are the hardest at 10, and talc is softest with a hardness of 1.) That means lapis lazuli is porous and relatively soft, but also still durable. Its features allow it to be carved easily, but it can be scratched easily too.

lapis lazuli inlay
This stunning inlay work at a Swaminarayan temple in Bhuj, Gujarat, India, incorporates lapis lazuli. It shows how brilliant the blue rock can be, and how easily lapis lazuli is to carve.
Tuul & Bruno Morandi/Getty Images

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Where Does Lapis Lazuli Come From?

The legendary home of lapis lazuli is Afghanistan, Santimer explains. Specifically, the Badakhshan area is home to the best lapis. According to New World Encyclopedia, Egyptian pharaohs and ancient Sumerians and Babylonians had lapis lazuli imported from these mines, possibly the world's oldest.

Santimer says that historically — and still today — the most prized lapis comes from that location, however, unlike the ancients, contemporary popular localities also include Russia, China and Chile. The American Gem Trade Association lists Myanmar, as well, where lapis lazuli deposits are mined today.

Lapis lazuli
This blue lapis lazuli crystal embedded in marble rock is one from Afghanistan.
Walter Geiersperger/Getty Images

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Why Was Lapis Lazuli Treasured by Ancient Civilizations?

Lapis lazuli turned heads with its brilliant color, plus it was easy to make it look good through polishing and carving, Santimer says.

"It's one of the older gemstones around," she says, predating the discovery of others we might consider more precious today. Ancient civilizations may have associated blue with the sky and heavens, which alludes to the afterlife. It was valued and traded because its royal blue color was godlike.

"If this wild, blue color came from the gods, you are going to go seek it," says Santimer.

But in addition to being used on pharaoh's masks, scarabs and beads, it is rumored that pulverized lapis lazuli was the eyeshadow of choice for Cleopatra.

During the Crusades, lapis lazuli began making its way to Europe where it was also ground, but in this case for paint. It's "rarity and cost meant that it could be afforded for the creation of art works only by the richest of patrons," Roderick Conway Morris wrote in a 2015 piece for The New York Times.

During that medieval period, the pigment, a color named ultramarine, which means "beyond the sea," was "more precious than gold," Ravi Mangla wrote in The Paris Review. It was so special (and expensive), ultramarine was usually reserved for special commissions or parts of paintings like the Virgin Mary's robes.

Until the 19th century, lapis lazuli was the only game in town for "true blue" ultramarine. But in the 1820s, French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet created a synthetic alternative.

King Tutankhamun funeral mask
King Tutankhamun's two coffins were made of wood and covered in gold and semiprecious stones, including the royal blue stone lapis lazuli, which you can clearly see here on the funeral mask.
assalve/Getty Images

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Lapis Lazuli Healing Properties

In addition to its visually attractive qualities, lapis lazuli is touted by some for having health properties, like easing pain and benefiting the respiratory and nervous systems. It's thought to reduce inflammation, promote healing and help identify "the karmic roots of disease," according to Crystals and Holistic Healing. The Spruce notes lapis lazuli has an "energy of deep calm" and a "connection that helps one align with a universal quality of truth and integrity."

Although GIA does not study or qualify healing properties of gems and rocks, Santimer did provide a word of caution.

"A gem should not be ingested," she says. "They should be worn, adorned and not eaten."

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How Is It Used Today?

If medieval artists used lapis lazuli for precious ultramarine paint, it has had many additional purposes. For example, the Greeks used it on caskets, shrines and sculptures, and the Chinese carved it into objects like game boards, dagger handles, hair combs and amulets, says Santimer. Church wall panels, massive inlays, sculptures and mosaics were also made of lapis lazuli.

These are historical examples, but they are still ways that the stone is used today — as sculpture, jewelry, objets d'art and mosaics. You can still buy lapis lazuli pigments too. It's never gone out of style.

"There aren't that many blue gemstones, so this is definitely a prized one," says Santimer. The more saturated blue with less veining and less pyrite is more valued. "The highly prized material out of Afghanistan can be very expensive."

If you would like to invest in this prized rock, you need to take care of it like any gem. Although lapis is found in rings, beads and many styles of jewelry, keep in mind that it can be easily damaged due to its softness. Don't wear your lapis lazuli jewelry while doing housework or participating in heavy activity, Santimer advises. And keep it protected from solvents. If you need to clean it, warm water and dish soap will work just fine.

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