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Lapis Lazuli - As rich in history as in colour

Lapis lazuli (also known merely as lapis)is a beautiful royal blue gemstone mainly consisting of lazurite and described by Pliny the Elder as “sprinkled with specks of gold” from natural pyrite inclusions that have grown in the crystal structure of the gemstone. Prized for its intense colour that needed minimal fashioning it is also one of our oldest known gemstones.

Lapis has been found in archaeological explorations dating back to 3300 BC at the Predynastic Egyptian excavation sites; in the Sar-i Sang mined in 7000 BC; and in Bhirrana c.7570 BC, showing how its popularity transcends different cultures and centuries.

Most incredibly reference to lapis can also be found in the Bible. Confusingly lapis used to be known as ‘sapphire’ (sapphirus in Latin, sappir in Hebrew), however sapphire as we know it today was not discovered before the age of the Roman Empire, which has lead academics to agree that these reference to sapphire in the old testament actually refer to lapis. This is so widely agreed that most modern translations of the Bible have lapis put in the place of sapphire.

One example can be found in Exodus 24:10 which reads in the English standard translation “under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness”; however, in the new international version it reads “Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.” Here you can see the academic shift between sapphire and lapis, cementing the importance of this regal gemstone.

And as though lapis couldn’t get more important, this new translation means that the ten commandments were likely not written upon sapphire, as was taught in the traditional teachings of Judaism; but instead, forever carved into tablets of lapis.

Aside from its prevalence in the Bible, lapis has been dotted across all manner of important moments in history. Lapis features in the death mask of the infamous Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, embedded in solid gold alongside obsidian, carnelian, turquoise and paste.

However, lapis was not only used in its solid form. Then pigment was so desired that often lapis was ground into a fine powder. This powder was well documented as being used by Cleopatra as eye shadow and even to colour the paint of fine renaissance artists work, most notably the blue head cover of ‘the girl with the pearl earring’ by Vermeer.

Such is the history of lapis that its list of accolades only goes on, however the one thing that is very clear is that this is a stone of the Gods.


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