Lapis Lazuli

“There is also in the same country [Afghanistan] another mountain where azure is found. It is the finest in the world and is got in a vain like silver.”

Marco Polo (1271 AD)

In Afghanistan, different kinds of gemstones can be found; in particular, there are great quantities of lapis lazuli (blue gems), emeralds (green gems), and rubies (red gems). The most famous is lapis lazuli. Afghanistan is one of the world’s biggest producers of this gem. The word “lapis” is the Latin word for stone, and the Arabian word “azul,” denotes the blue color.

This opaque, deep blue gemstone looks back at a long history. It was one of the first stones ever to be used and worn for jewelry. Excavations in the antique cultural centers all around the Mediterranean provided archeologists with samples of jewelry left in tombs to accompany the deceased into the hereafter. Most frequently, this jewelry consisted of necklaces and objects crafted from lapis lazuli indicating that thousands of years ago the people in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome cherished deep blue lapis lazuli. It is reported that at the legendary city of Ur situated on the Euphrates River, there was busy trade in lapis lazuli as early as four thousand years BC. This lapis was discovered and mined in Afghanistan, making it the world’s oldest source of commercial gemstones.

In other cultures lapis lazuli was also worshipped as a holy stone. Particularly in Oriental countries it was considered a gemstone with mystical powers. To the Buddhists, lapis lazuli brought peace of mind and equanimity and dispelled evil thoughts.

Numerous seals, rings, scarabs and objects were crafted from the blue stone, which was introduced to Europe by Alexander the Great. The color was called “ultramarine.” In Europe, it was used as pigment for ultramarine in paintings dating back to the Middle Ages. The ultramarine color was valued like gold in the art world. In fact the ultramarine blue paint used by the Grand Old Masters was finely ground lapis lazuli. It was ground and added to a mixture of binding agents, thereby turning the marble-like gemstone into a bright blue paint suitable for watercolors, tempera and oil paintings. Before it became possible to manufacture this color artificially (1828), the valuable ultramarine color had to be made from real lapis lazuli, which still displays its splendor in many works of art of the time. In those days ultramarine blue was considered fine, rare and very expensive.

Contrary to all other material employed to create the color blue, lapis lazuli has withstood the test of time in terms of its brilliance, while other compositions have long since paled. Currently the blue pigment derived from lapis lazuli is still used especially for renovations and restorations.

Lapis lazuli is the only important gemstone classified as a rock rather than a mineral. It is composed of several minerals. The main one is the blue lazurite that gives the actual blue color to the gem. The amount of lazurite is significant in that the more there is, the deeper the color blue. In addition to this mineral are the white calcite and the pyrite that usually appears as golden inclusions.

Many a cutter will make a face when cutting lapis lazuli, because as soon as the stone comes into contact with the cutting wheel, it will emanate a typical, slightly foul smell. An experienced cutter will recognize from the smell alone the satiation of color shown by the stone.

Just like over 50,000 years ago, the best rough stones are still mined in Afghanistan . Lapis lazuli is found in the Yamagan Valley in the province of Badakhshan (north-east of Afghanistan ). The most famous mine is called Sar-e-Sang and is located in this mountain valley on the upper part of the Kokcha River, a tributary of the Amu Darya River.

Extraction of lapis lazuli is quite difficult since the mines are located at an altitude of 3,700 meters to 4,300 meters. Moreover, it is only possible from June to November, since the mines are otherwise impassable during inclement weather.