Lapis Lazuli – A Rock of Ages

Gemmologists usually study minerals and organic gemstones.  There is a rock that is used for personal adornment and is considered a gemstone.   There is evidence that this beautiful blue rock had been traded between Afghanistan and Iraq as early as c. 4500 B.C.

Lapis Lazuli Scarab

Lapis Lazuli from The Fitzwilliam Museum


Three facts mentioned by Coenraads and de Bon (2000) used the following to support the contention that lapis lazuli is one of the first gemstones used as a decorative and gem stone:

  1. It is mentioned in Chinese annals of the 8th and 6th centuries BC;
  2. Lapis lazuli-bearing Sumerian court jewelry, carvings, etc. were found in the royal tomb of Queen Pu-abi (circa 2500 BC), Ur, Iraq (see colored photo in Douglas, 1980, p,782);  and
  3. Lapis lazuli constitutes the eyebrows and areas around the eyes of the gold mask of the mummy of Tutankhamun (1361-1352 BC).

What is a Rock?

A rock is an aggregate (group) of minerals.  A rock is more or less hard solids, of natural origin, made of minerals.

What is Lapis Lazuli?

The main component of lapis lazuli is lazurite (25% to 40%).  Most lapis lazuli also contains calcite (white), sodalite (blue), and pyrite (metallic yellow).  There may also be augite, diopside, enstatite, mica, hauyanite, hornblende and nosean.  Some lapis lazuli contains trace amounts of the sulfur-rich lollingnite variety geyerite.  The colouring agent is sulfur.

Although lapis lazuli is used to make beautiful jewellery it is commonly used for carvings, boxes, mosaics, ornaments and vases.

Anything Beautiful is Imitated

Sodalite Specimen

Sodalite Photo by J McKercher

Sodalite, azurite, lazulite and dumortierite may be confused with lapis lazuli.  Chalcedony dyed blue is sold as “Swiss Lapis” or “German Lapis”, they are not lapis lazuli.  Synthetic spinel with gold forced into surface holes to simulate the pyrite (fool’s gold) is used as an imitation of lapis lazuli.

Lapis Lazuli Is Often Enhanced

Common enhancements for this stone are dyeing and coating, with wax or resin in order to improve the luster.  When the stone has been dyed, the coating stabilizes the colourant which can be constant or not, depending on its chemistry and the porosity of the material.

Visit a Museum to See Incredible Lapis Lazuli Carvings

Cult Image of God Ptah

Cult Image of God Ptah

Cult image of the god Ptah, Dynasty 22–early Dynasty 26 (ca. 945–600 b.c.), Egyptian, Lapis lazuli

H. 2 1/4 in. (5.6 cm)
Anne and John V. Hansen Egyptian Purchase Fund, 2007 (2007.24)

This statuette represents the creator god Ptah, the patron deity of Egypt’s capital city, Memphis. His shrouded human form and tight-fitting cap make him quite recognizable. The high quality of workmanship indicates that the sculpture was produced in a royal workshop as a gift from the pharaoh to the god in his great temple in Memphis. It could also have been dedicated to a shrine outside the capital city, as the cult of Ptah became more widespread in the late New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1190–664 B.C.).

The detail the artist was able to carve on such a tiny sculpture in very hard stone is impressive. Lacking room for an inscription, the artist cleverly used iconography and the material itself to communicate Ptah’s most important roles. Ptah’s epithet, Lord of the Sky, may be read from the lapis lazuli, which stands for the deep blue cosmos studded with stars. The royal beard, the composite scepter, and the sed-festival garment link Ptah with the king and justify his title, Lord of the Two Lands. The sumptuous broad collar signifies his role as Master Craftsman, and the small wedge-shaped base represents the hieroglyph maat, or universal order, an allusion to another of Ptah’s epithets, Lord of Truth.

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The Mining of Lapis in Afghanistan is Dangerous

Lapis lazuli can be found in Chile and the former USSR, but the best quality lapis lazuli comes from northern Afghanistan.


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(Join our poll or Scroll Down To The Bottom and leave a comment) – Emerald is winning the poll!

Lapis Lazuli Heart

Lapis Lazuli Photo by J McKercher


I plan to introduce different gemstones alphabetically.  I started with “A” (Ammolite) , now I am up to “L”.  Leave a comment and let me know if you have a favourite gemstone that starts with the letter “M”.  Take the poll!  Can you name a reference to a gemstone in a song, movie or book?

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About Jen McKercher

Jennifer McKercher teaches gemmology at the Canadian Gemmological Association. A passion for gemstones drives Jen to learn as much as she can about the wonders of gemstones and how they enhance our lives.

Posted on October 21, 2011, in Individual Gemstones and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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