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Lapis Lazuli : The Twice Precious Gemstone

Lapis lazuli has been prized as a gemstone for thousands of years and its popularity has not waned. Lapis lazuli consists mainly of the mineral lazurite which gives it its characteristic colour.

The finest quality lapis comes from Afghanistan. Deep blue with purplish overtones and minimal inclusions are the most desirable traits. And yet, what gives this gemstone its charm and differentiates it from sodalite is the often present gold flecks (iron pyrite or fool's gold). That is why I purchased the earrings in the picture, for this gemstone as well as for its ethnic styling, from a Turkish stall in New Orlean's French Market several years ago.

The ancient Egyptians were particularly fond of it - Tutankhamun's death mask was a perfect study in gold and lapis. Cleopatra used ground up lapis as an early form of eye shadow. What made it twice as precious was its other use as the source of ultramarine paint.

The word ultramarine comes from the Italian technical term oltramarino meaning "from beyond the seas". Lapis was so costly not only because of its distant source but also the difficulty in extracting the blue pigment from the stone.

Until a synthetic version came along, ultramarine was the most expensive colour in an artist's palette, worth more than gold. The Renaissance artists could not afford it and depended on their patrons to supply it. Not surprisingly, these artists reserved this heavenly blue for the mantle of the most precious symbol of their faith, the Virgin Mary.

Madonna painting by Lorenzo Monaco
Florence c. 1410

References :
Wikipedia
Photo of lapis lazuli by mharrsch on flickr
Judith Crowe's The Jeweler's Directory of Gemstones (see sidebar for details
Victoria Finlay (2002). Color: A Natural History of the Palette

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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