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Lapis lazuli

A polished specimen of lapis lazuli.
Category Rock
Chemical formula mixture of minerals
Color Blue, mottled with white calcite and brassy pyrite
Crystal habit Compact, massive
Crystal system None, as lapis is a rock. Lazurite, the main constituent, frequently occurs as dodecahedra
Cleavage None
Fracture Uneven-Conchoidal
Mohs scale hardness 5 - 5.5
Luster dull
Streak light blue
Specific gravity 2.7-2.9
Refractive index 1.5
Other characteristics The variations in composition cause a wide variation in the above values.

Lapis lazuli (pronounced /ˈlæpɪs ˈlæz(j)ʊlaɪ/ or /ˈlæzjʊli/ LAP-iss LAZ-yu-lye/lee[1]) (sometimes abbreviated to lapis) is a relatively rare, semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense blue color.

Lapis lazuli has been mined in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan for over 6,000 years, and trade in the stone is ancient enough for lapis jewelry to have been found at Predynastic Egyptian sites (as archeologists have frequently stated, but lapis could also be found in, e.g. the Siwa Oasis in the Western Libyan desert), and lapis beads at neolithic burials in Mehrgarh, the Caucasus, and even as far from Afghanistan as Mauritania.[2]



Rough and polished Lapis lazuli.

Lapis lazuli is a rock, not a mineral: whereas a mineral has only one constituent, lapis lazuli is formed from more than one mineral.[3]

The main component of lapis lazuli is lazurite (25% to 40%), a feldspathoid silicate mineral composed of sodium, aluminum, silicon, oxygen, sulfur, and chloride. Its formula is (Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1-2.[4] Most lapis lazuli also contains calcite (white), sodalite (blue), and pyrite (metallic yellow). Other possible constituents are augite, diopside, enstatite, mica, hauynite, hornblende, and nosean. Some contain trace amounts of the sulfur rich löllingite variety geyerite.

Lapis lazuli usually occurs in crystalline marble as a result of contact metamorphism.

The finest color is intense blue, lightly dusted with small flecks of golden pyrite. Stones with no white calcite veins and only small pyrite inclusions are more prized. Patches of pyrite are an important help in identifying the stone as genuine and do not detract from its value. Often, inferior lapis is dyed to improve its color, producing a very dark blue with a noticeable grey cast which may also appear as a milky shade.


An Elephant carving in high quality lapis lazuli, showing gold-colored inclusions of pyrite (length 8 cm (3.1 in))

Lapis takes an excellent polish and can be made into jewelry, carvings, boxes, mosaics, ornaments, and vases. In architecture it has been used for cladding the walls and columns of palaces and churches.

It was also ground and processed to make the pigment ultramarine for tempera paint and, more rarely, oil paint. Its usage as a pigment in oil paint ended in the early 19th century as a chemically identical synthetic variety, often called French Ultramarine, became available.


Lapis was the Latin for 'stone' and lazuli the genitive form of the Medieval Latin lazulum, which is from the Arabic لازورد lāzaward, which is ultimately from the Persian لاژورد lāzhward, the name of a place where lapis lazuli was mined.[5][6] The name of the place came to be associated with the stone mined there and, eventually, with its color. The English word azure, the French azur, the Italian azzurro, the Spanish and the Portuguese azul are cognates. Taken as a whole, lapis lazuli means 'stone of Lāzhward'.


The best lapis lazuli is found in limestone in the Kokcha River valley of Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan, and these deposits in the mines of Sar-e-Sang have been worked for more than 6,000 years.[7] Afghanistan was the source of lapis for the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, as well as the later Greek and Roman; during the height of the Indus valley civilization about 2000 BC, the Harappan colony now known as Shortugai was established near the lapis mines.[2]

In addition to the Afghan deposits, lapis has been extracted for many years in the Andes near Ovalle, Chile, where the deep blue stones compete in quality with those from Afghanistan.[8] Other less important sources include the Lake Baikal region of Russia, Siberia, Angola, Burma, Pakistan, USA (California and Colorado), Canada, and India.

Historical usage

In ancient Egypt lapis lazuli was a favorite stone for amulets and ornaments such as scarabs; it was also used by the Assyrians and Babylonians for seals. Lapis jewelry has been found at excavations of the Predynastic Egyptian site Naqada (3300–3100 BC), and powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra.[2]

In ancient times, lapis lazuli was known as sapphire,[9] which is the name that is used today for the blue corundum variety sapphire.

A Mesopotamian lapis lazuli pendant circa 2900 BC.
A 11 cm (4.3 in) long lapis lazuli dove studded with gold pegs. Elamite. Dated 1200 BC from Susa, Iran.
Carved lapis lazuli of a mountain scene, from the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).

A Chinese carving inspired William Butler Yeats's poem "Lapis Lazuli", which captures the beauty and mystery of the stone.

See also


  1. ^ *The New Penguin English Dictionary, 2000
  2. ^ a b c Bowersox & Chamberlin 1995
  3. ^ Mindat entry relating to lapis lazuli
  4. ^ Mindat - Lazurite
  5. ^ Senning, Alexander (2007). "lapis lazuli (lazurite)". Elsevier's Dictionary of Chemoetymology. Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp. 224. ISBN 9780444522399. 
  6. ^ Weekley, Ernest (1967). "azure". An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 97. 
  7. ^ Oldershaw 2003
  8. ^ Gemrocks, Lapis Lazuli
  9. ^ Schumann, Walter (2006) [2002]. "Sapphire". Gemstones of the World. trans. Annette Englander & Daniel Shea (newly revised & expanded 3rd ed.). New York: Sterling. pp. 102. "In antiquity and as late as the Middle Ages, the name sapphire was understood to mean what is today described as lapis lazuli." 


  • Bowersox, Gary W.; Chamberlin, Bonita E. (1995), Gemstones of Afghanistan, Tucson, AZ: Geoscience Press .
  • Oldershaw, Cally (2003), "Lapis Lazuli", Firefly Guide to Gems, Toronto: Firefly Books .

External links


Simple English

uses blue paint made from Lapis lazuli]]

Lapis lazuli is a metamorphic rock. It is famous for its beautiful blue colour. Its name means "stone of blue", and comes from the word "lazward", from Ancient Persia (now known as Iran and Afghanistan). Lapis Lazuli has been used for many things. Its has been made into beads and used in jewellery since Prehistoric times. It can be carved into statuettes (little sculptures). The major use was as a "pigment" (colour) in artists' paint. During Medieval and Renaissance times, Lapis lazuli was ground up into powder, and mixed into paint as the colour for painting the sky and the robe of the Virgin Mary. It can be seen in the fresco paintings of Giotto and the tempera paintings of Fra Angelico.

Scientific description

Lapis lazuli is a metamorphic rock made from several minerals. The main mineral in Lapis lazuli is Lazurite. Lazurite is a silicate mineral with sulfate, sulfur and chloride. Its formula is (Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(SO4,S,Cl)2. Lazurite has been mined for over 6,000 years in the district of Badakhshan in Afghanistan. It is also mined at Lake Baikal in Siberia; at Mount Vesuvius in Italy; in Burma; Canada; and the United States[1].



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