The name Lapis Lazuli comes from a variety of words meaning "blue" (azure) or "heaven". The Latin "lazulum", stemming from the Arabic "lazaward" (lazawam, or L'azulaus) meaning blue, heaven and sky, and the similar Persian "lazhward" constitute the Lazuli part. The first part of the name, Lapis, is of Latin origin meaning simply "stone".
Lapis Lazuli is rare and only found in a few places on earth including Chile, Baffin Islands, United States, Argentina, Canada, Siberia, and Afghanistan, where it occurs in large deposits. The best quality material contains less calcite and pyrite. An opaque stone, Lapis Lazuli takes a beautiful polish. It has always been fashioned as beads and cabochons, carved into exquisite articles of ornament, or used in inlays and mosaics.The most famous locality for fine quality lapis lazuli is in the remote Kokcha Valley of Badakhshan, Afghanistan. This is the same ancient deposit high in the mountains where it was originally mined at least 6000 years ago. It has been mined continuously at this location and is widely referenced in many ancient texts. The mines were visited by Marco Polo, in the year 1271 A.D. These mines still produce the best quality of Lapis Lazuli. The stone was exported to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, and Sumer where it was used as ornamental stone and in jewelry. It was later traded throughout the East and into Europe.
The mining of Lapis Lazuli remains quite primitive. Huge fires are built on the rocks, then water is thrown on them. The sudden cooling of the rocks causes them to split up so they can be readily be excavated. The yield, however, is small, and the price even for exceptionally fine specimens is low. With the market value rising, security is increased at the mines, where miners are routinely chained to the walls of the mineshafts while they work.
Lapis is not widely referenced as a birthstone. However, a 1912 list of birthstones created by a trade group lists lapis as one of the gems. Regardless of whether it is considered a birthstone, lapis is a gem rich in history
The celestial hue of Lapis Lazuli was thought, in ancient cultures of Peru, Egypt, and China, to be appropriate for use as a memorial offering, such as a scarab or talisman, to aid in their heavenward journey in the afterlife .
In the ancient world, lapis was considered as valuable as gold. For years Egyptians sent out legions of soldiers to accompany traders who collected lapis for amulets, scarabs and for their high priests, who wore images of Mat, the goddess of truth, around their necks.
Powdered lazurite was once the source of the pigment ultramarine, used by the ancient Egyptians since before 3,100 BC in medicines, paintings, and cosmetics. Ancient Egyptians used ground up Lapis Lazuli as an early form of eye shadow. In fact, powdered lapis was used as an eye shadow by Cleopatra herself.
In ancient Egypt blue lapis was a favorite stone for amulets and ornaments such as scarabs. The Egyptians used Lapis for seals and often carved it into vases and figurines. The 26th chapter of the Book of the Dead was engraved on lapis-lazuli, the 27th upon feldspar, the 30th upon serpentine, and the 29th upon carnelian, due to the association between the god principally invoked in the text with the precious substance upon which the text was engraved.
As inscribed in the 140th chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, blue lapis, in the shape of an eye set in gold, was considered an amulet of great power. On the last day of the month, an offering was made before this symbolic eye, for it was believed that, on that day, the supreme being placed such an image on his head.
At one time Lapis jewelry was only worn by royalty. It was believed by some that wearing Lapis Lazuli would protect the wearer from evil. A powerful Sumerian bull god had a lapis beard, and those who carried the gem had the power of that god. A saying of the ancient Sumerian priests states. "He who carries with him into battle an amulet of Lapis carries with him the presence of his god."
Assyrian tablets refer to the gem as an article of tribute. In the third millennium, BCE, Puabi, a Sumerian queen, dressed in a robe of lapis and gold. Innini, also known as Isthar, a Babylonian goddess of love and sex, adorned herself with ornaments of lapis lazuli, including a great lapis lazuli necklace, in preparation for her descent into the underworld
Lapis Lazuli was also one of the stones set in the 'Breastplate of Judgement' worn by Aaron, brother of Moses and great High Priest, as described in the Bible in Exodus 28:15-30. Ezekiel 1:26 describes God's throne appearing to be Lapis Lazuli. Lapis was used in ceremonial robes of Hebrew patriarchs. Lapis Lazuli is further related to Archangel Zadkiel, whose name means, "Righteousness of God". It is said an angel gave King Solomon a lapis ring to control demons.
In ancient times, Lapis Lazuli was also known as Sapphirus, which is the name that we use today for the blue corundum variety of Sapphire. Greeks spoke of an ancient sapphire which was streaked with gold, and this is unmistakably Lapis. Pliny refers to Sapphirus as a stone sprinkled with specks of gold. A similar reference can be found in Job 28:6. Tradition has it the Ten Commandments were carved on tablets of Sapphire, and, as mentioned, it is believed that this and other references to Sapphire in the Bible are actually Lapis Lazuli.
The Romans even believed it to be an aphrodisiac. Some believed that dreaming of Lapis would foretell love that would be forever faithful. It is supposed to bring spiritual love and is also known for enhancing love and fidelity within marriage.
In the Middle Ages, it was thought to keep the limbs healthy, and free the soul from error, envy and fear. It was once believed that lapis had medicinal properties. It was ground down, mixed with milk and applied as a dressing for boils and ulcers. It was also mixed with oil to create an exquisitely intense blue paint which served as a pigment for illuminated manuscripts.
Lapis was also used as for Tibetan tankas - the sacred iconographic chronology of deities which form the basis for visualizations during meditation practices.
Up until the 19th century, ground Lapis Lazuli was mixed with oil and used as a pigment and paint to create the colour ultramarine, which literally meant "beyond the sea" as it was brought from far away by ship. This semi-precious mineral was usually used for artworks of great importance, such as the funeral mask of Tutankhamen and the decoration of the Taj Mahal. The grand old masters of the Renaissance chose it to color the garments of Christ and the Virgin Mary, despite the fact that the Lapis Lazuli cost more than gold. It wasn't until 1828 that a substitute was made for this costly pigment. There are castles which still have columns and wallpanels covered in this lustrous stone.
Today, lapis is common, carried out of the mines of Afghanistan in tin trunks from which it is exported all over the world. Lapis was much more expensive decades ago than it is now. That the gem has become fairly easy to obtain does not diminish its beauty or its value.