Suddenly Everywhere: Lapis Lazuli

Writing about gems and jewelry has become my particular métier, so it’s hard to believe that nearly 25 years ago I was sitting in Mr. Jessen’s AP English class trying in vain to make heads or tails of a poem by William Butler Yeats called “Lapis Lazuli.” Starting with the title—what the heck was lapis lazuli? (Knowing this much was key because the poem centers on a decorative objet made of a mystical blue stone, intricately carved to depict a group of ancient “Chinamen” climbing a mountain.)

While I was completely at a loss then, I’m straight on what lapis lazuli is now. And to my delight, I’ve been seeing quite a lot of it on the market. I’m sorry to report that the deeper meanings of the Yeats poem still elude me (reread it last night—still a stumper), but I’ve made up for it by getting to know the stone a little better.

Like the fact that the flecks of gold you sometimes see are actually traces of pyrite. The white streaks that can appear are calcite and, according to the GIA, their presence is often seen as a less desirable feature. But knowing what we know about perfectly imperfect jewelry, beauty is in the eye of the beholder these days.

Lapis is rarely faceted and is instead cut into cabochons, beads, inlays, and tablets. The gem was treasured by the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome; today the most coveted lapis specimens hail from Afghanistan, where the stone has been mined for more than 6,000 years.

And my favorite tidbit: Vermeer used pure lapis lazuli, ground into a superfine powder and mixed with oil, to achieve an iridescent pigment known as ultramarine. The color appears in many of the 17th-century Dutch master’s paintings, including the famous Girl With a Pearl Earring, which shows the subject wearing a blue-and-white fabric headdress.

Below, my favorite lapis pieces of late.

Bluebird ring with lapis lazuli and diamonds in 14k yellow gold, $1,105, Ambyr Childers

Lapis burst studs in sterling silver, $400, Witz Jewelry Design

Blue Star Necklace with a lapis doublet, rutilated quartz and diamonds in 18k yellow gold, $5,750, Dana Bronfman

Lapis Earrings in 18k yellow gold, $1,650, Monica Marcella

Indra lapis cuffs in 18k gold-plated brass, and sterling silver, $306 each, Edge of Ember

Sagan Necklace with a lapis lazuli pendant accented with tsavorite garnets in 18k yellow gold. $4,200, Baker & Black

Skimmer earrings with lapis and pavé diamonds in 14k gold, $1,850 each, Smith+Mara

Lapis lazuli teardrop earrings capped in 22k gold on 18k gold wire hooks, $1,600, Nancy Troske

Lapis and pavé diamond ring in 14k gold, $1,265, Meira T

 Indigo necklace with lapis, blue agate, African glass, and bronze beads, $495, Julie Cohn Design

Lapis lazuli earrings in 18k yellow gold, $2,650, Halleh

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Amy Elliott

JCK Contributing Editor

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