It was called saphiros, the sapphire of the ancient Sumerians. Originating from the land of Persia, the gem was mined and traded among the conquerors of the world. Its royal blue color was a perfect contrast to the pure gold in King Tutankhamen’s burial mask. Cleopatra wore ground-up lapis as eye shadow. Once its magical color was appreciated, lapis was used to create luxurious blue paints.
Lapis lazuli, mineralogically named lazurite, is an ornamental gem material, an opaque gem, most often rock-like and composed of many minerals, and sometimes accented by tiny inclusions of iron pyrite—fool’s-gold flecks encased in deep blue lazurite—and other sodium aluminum silicates. Lapis has been an alternate birthstone for the month of December, along with turquoise and zircon.
History and romance. Although Afghanistan is one of the last places one would want to venture into these days, it is the home of the finest lapis lazuli on earth. Generally mined from the Badakhshan region in the Kokcha Valley in Northern Afghanistan, far north of Jalalabad and Kabul, the lapis is found in veins in an area surrounded by steep mountains that can climb as high as 18,000 ft. This is the same area where historically important Persian lapis originated and has been mined for the past 6,000 years. When the mines are that difficult to reach, the deposits can last seemingly forever.
Qualities. Lapis in darker and more pure royal blue—sometimes purplish-blue—is what most jewelers expect. This material most often comes from Afghanistan. Chilean and Chinese lapis may have other minerals in the mix that cause the color to lighten, appear somewhat greenish, or contain areas of white calcite veining.
Enhancement. Commonly dyed, the weak- or unevenly-colored material is enhanced by organic coloring agents. Some dye can be removed using acetone, commonly found in fingernail polish remover. A quick rub with a Q-tip soaked in acetone should remove the dye, leaving a blue stain on the white cotton. (This does not work in all cases, but in those that it does, remember that the piece will be discolored in the tested area.) The acetone test also may not work on some dyed material that has been sealed with wax or paraffin. In this case, using a hot-point to sweat the wax could be the key to identification of dyed material.
Naturally colored blue sodalite can make for a good lapis substitute, especially when you consider that natural lapis is already partially made up of sodalite.
Pricing. Priced per gram in the rough, and typically priced by size in cabochons, the extra-fine lapis from Afghanistan can range in value from $50 to $60 for 16-mm x 12-mm ovals. Carvings are individually priced, as are beads. Lower prices should prompt the buyer to ask about enhancements.
Care and cleaning. Wipe only with mild soap and water, since the material can be somewhat porous. Its hardness and ability to take a hit is quite limited: Lapis ranks only 5.5 on the Mohs scale and is classified as “brittle.”
Bench repair and setting. Because of the potential for enhancement and porosity, lapis should be removed from the setting before any jewelry repair is attempted. When setting lapis, one also should be aware of any veining or fractures that may weaken a particular area of the gem. Since most lapis cabochons are bezel set, caution is advised.
Recommended reading. For more information, see: Gem and Crystal Treasures, Peter Bancroft (1984), Mineralogical Record Books, Tucson, Ariz.
Wyart I., Bariand P., Filippi J. (1981), “Lapis lazuli from Sar-e-Sang, Badakhshan, Afghanistan,” Gems & Gemology, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 184-190.
Gemstones of Afghanistan, Gary W. Bowersox and Bonita E. Chamberlin (1995), Geoscience Press, Tucson, Ariz.