Gemstones

Lapis Lazuli Guide

Lapis lazuli (also known as simply ‘lapis’) has been in use as a gemstone for at least 9000 years. Its deep blue color and golden sparkle has never lost its charm and it is still a very popular gemstone today.

Once only worn by the rich and noble, it is now within reach of every gemstone enthusiast or jewelry lover.

Table of Contents

What is Lapis Lazuli?

Lapis cabochon with pyrite

Lapis cabochon with pyrite – Credit Images of Chemical Elements – CC BY-3.0

The name lapis lazuli comes from the Latin word for stone (lapis) and the word lazulum which is taken from the Persian word for lapis lazuli: ‘lazaward’. It has been mined in Afghanistan for at least 9000 years and this is still where the highest quality stones are found.

There are numerous other places in the world where it can be found, including the United States, Russia, Chile and Pakistan. A lot of these stones are medium quality at best though and only really useful for beading.

Lapis Lazuli Properties

Most gemstones are minerals, but this is not the case for lapis lazuli. Instead it is a rock that is made up of a number of minerals. The main part is lazurite and this is what gives the stone its blue color. Other minerals commonly seen are sodalite and calcite.

Sometimes you can see golden specks among the blue and white. This is pyrite, also known as ‘Fool’s Gold’. Where most minerals decrease the value of lapis lazuli, pyrite often increases it.

We will come back to that in our buying guide further down this page. Despite the similarity, lazulite is not found in lapis lazuli.

Lapis lazuli is an opaque gemstone. This means that you cannot see through it. This is one of the reasons why it is almost exclusively made into cabochons. Carvings are quite popular as well, as lapis lazuli can be found in large blocks.

Lapis lazuli only has a hardness of between 5 and 5.5. This means that your lapis lazuli jewelry will eventually show some wear and tear. Fortunately a simple polishing will restore it to its former glory.

In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli Bodies of holy men and women exude Miraculous oil, odour of violet.
— W.B. Yeats

Lapis Lazuli Color

The color of lapis lazuli ranges from a light summer sky blue to midnight blue. Generally the deep blue stones are the rarest. The streaks of white that can often be seen are caused by calcite.

Lapis Lazuli Birthstone

Lapis is the traditional birthstone of December. In the modern system it has been replaced by turquoise.

Lapis Lazuli Uses

Girl with a pearl earring by Johannes Vermeer - notice the ultramarine turban.

Girl with a pearl earring by Johannes Vermeer – notice the ultramarine turban.

Apart from being used in jewelry, lapis lazuli is also used for many other decorative purposes. Almost anything you can think of can be carved from it. Just a few examples: vases, mosaics, statues, bowls, caskets and many more.

One of the most important uses in art however was as a dye in paint. High quality lapis lazuli was ground down and used to make the color called ‘ultramarine’. This made ultramarine extremely expensive.

Many of the master painters from the ‘Renaissance’ used this type of paint for the most important persons in their paintings. An example can be seen to the right.

Early in the 19th century a synthetic version of ultramarine was discovered and this quickly became the standard.

Lapis Lazuli Buying Guide

Nowadays lapis lazuli is a very affordable gemstone. Still there are a few things you should know before buying a stone for your collection or a piece of lapis lazuli jewelry.

Lapis Lazuli Value

The value of lapis lazuli is mostly determined by its color. An even deep blue stone will be the most valuable for collectors and jewelry lovers both. The second most important factor are the pyrite inclusions. If they are evenly distributed over the surface of the stone its price will increase dramatically.

However, most other minerals will lower the value. For example, calcite will show as white bands or patches in the stone and causes a sharp decrease in value.

Low quality lapis can be had for under a dollar per carat. Medium quality lapis will sell for a few dollars per carat. These stones will usually not have any pyrite and show at least some calcite streaking. Top quality lapis can still sell for $100+ per carat at retail.

Buyer Beware

Lapis lazuli urn on display in the Hermitage

Lapis lazuli urn on display in the Hermitage – Credit Dezidor – CC BY-3.0

One of the things you should know is that synthetic lapis lazuli exists. It is often called ‘Gilson lapis’ after the company that creates it. Some of their better work even includes pyrite! The only way you can recognize it is that it never shows calcite streaks. Unfortunately this is also true for top quality natural lapis.

The company markets their product as synthetic lapis. However, that does not mean that other people will do the same. So you should be careful when buying high quality lapis, especially from a seller you don’t know that well.

As a side note: it might be better to call this product a simulant as its blue color comes from ground lazurite.

Other imitants are dyed jasper, howlite and chalcedony. If you see ‘Swiss Lapis’ you should be aware that this is nothing more than dyed jasper.

Usually it looks like a piece of low quality lapis and certainly does not come close to the Gilson Lapis mentioned earlier. This type does show white streaks that looks like calcite at first glance.

Dyed howlite is probably the most common imitant. You can find out if a stone is dyed by using a Q-tip with some nail polish remover on it. Ask the dealer for permission first though! For some great pictures and discussion on Gilson and Swiss lapis take a look here.

Another trick is reconstituted lapis. Small virtually worthless pieces of lapis are ground up and pressed together with some added glue. The result is a stone that is hard to tell from real, because it is made up from real lapis lazuli.

Golden funeral mask of king Tutankhamen inlaid with lapis lazuli and turquoise

Golden funeral mask of king Tutankhamen inlaid with lapis lazuli and turquoise

Two other enhancements are regularly used: waxing and oiling. These are used to improve the looks of the stone and offer some protection against damage. These treatments are not permanent. Be sure to ask the seller if the stones have been waxed or oiled, as a completely natural stone is more valuable.

If your stone is completely natural you still might want to get it waxed or oiled for protection. Especially if you intend to wear it often in jewelry.

Another enhancement, though likely rare, is the irradiation of lapis (source). This will lead to a darker blue color and increase its selling price. This treatment is impossible to detect without (expensive) specialized equipment.

It can be very difficult to identify the various imitations and enhancements, even for an expert. The best way to avoid getting defrauded is to buy from a seller with a great reputation.

Note: there is nothing wrong with buying imitations or enhanced lapis lazuli. You should just be aware of the facts and not pay the price of a natural stone for a piece of dyed plastic or concrete. (Yes, people are trying to pass off dyed concrete as lapis lazuli, really!).

Lapis Lazuli Jewelry

It is important to keep in mind that lapis lazuli has a fairly low hardness. To avoid costly accidents you could opt for a lapis necklace or earrings.

Yes, you can wear a lapis ring, but you will need to get it re-polished more often. Because no matter how careful you are, you will eventually hit something and scratch or chip your stone.

How to Clean and Store Lapis Lazuli

  • Cleaning lapis lazuli is not hard, but some care is required. The easiest and safest option is warm water with a mild soap. You should soak the stone for a few minutes and gently clean it. If needed you can use a soft cloth or brush. Important: As a significant amount of lapis has been dyed you should first only clean a small part of the stone that is not very visible. This is because some dye treatments are not stable and you will damage the color of your stone. You should not use an ultrasonic cleaner because it can damage the stone. A steam cleaner should also not be used. The steam will destroy the color of dyed lapis and can still damage natural lapis.
  • Storing lapis lazuli should be done carefully. Lapis is not a hard stone and can scratched by many other gemstones. Make sure to store it in a dry place, because the pyrite can start rusting. If you own a decorative piece of lapis you should not display it in direct sunlight. Otherwise the color might fade over time.
  • Lapis takes a good polish. If needed you can ask any jeweler to re-polish your stone. If you want a 100% natural stone you should make sure they do not use wax or oil without your permission.

Lapis Lazuli History

There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself.
— Exodus 24:10
Lapis has been used as an ornamental stone and gemstone for thousands of years. Lapis lazuli beads dating back to the 7th millennium BC were found in Afghanistan.

Almost every ancient civilization in Eurasia used lapis including Ur, Assyria, Babylonia and Sumeria to name just a few.

Ancient Egypt was no exception and numerous artifacts with lapis have been found over the years.

Perhaps the most famous artifact is the golden funeral mask of king Tutankhamen seen earlier on this page. It is inlaid with lapis lazuli (dark blue) and turquoise. Cleopatra wore eye-shadow made from lapis, an extravagance only a queen could afford (source).

Lapis is not mentioned in the Bible, though many references to sappir or sapphirus can be found. This is strange as the sapphire as we know it today was not known until the rise of the Roman Empire.

The description of sapphire by scientists from that period as “speckled with gold” makes it certain that it refers to lapis lazuli. This is why in newer translations you will find that all references to sapphire have been replaced by lapis lazuli.

Lapis Lazuli Meaning

As with any ancient gemstone many powers were attributed to lapis lazuli through the ages. Most times it offered the wearer protection from evil and would bring inner peace.

The deep blue combined with the golden sparkle of pyrite resembled the night sky. This led many to believe that this stone was a connection to the gods. This was one of the reasons that priests and royalty often wore the stone, particularly in Ancient Egypt.

Lapis Lazuli Image Gallery

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Lapis Lazuli Videos

This video showcases the stunning blue color of high quality lapis lazuli. It also gives a short overview of the subject, definitely worth the watch.


A short video that shows how lapis lazuli is being mined in Afghanistan nowadays. You can read the full story at here: Tapping into Afghanistan’s Wealth of Gems


Extraction of the famous ultramarine pigment used by Renaissance painters.  The method is based on the original method written down by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (c. 1360 – before 1427). Seeing just how much lapis stones are needed you can imagine how expensive ultramarine must have been in those days.

Similar Gemstones

Azurite looks quite similar to lapis, often even darker, but is also softer. Sodalite and lapis can be hard to keep apart, but sodalite is usually a bit lighter and has a slightly higher hardness. The main difference is that sodalite is more coarse than lapis, this makes it harder to polish and limits its use in jewelry.

Resources

  • Minerals.net – Here you can find all the scientific properties of lapis you could need.
  • GIA.edu – A short article on the history and lore of lapis lazuli. It has some excellent images of lapis artifacts.

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