What is Lapis?

Lapis is an opaque gemstone and mineral. The major component of lapis, is lazurite ([Na,Ca]8[AlSiO4]6[SO4,S,Cl]2), a type of “framework silicate,” or tectosilicate. This group of silicates comprises nearly 75% of the crust of the Earth. It contains, aside from silica, sodium, calcium, aluminum, oxygen, sulfur, and chloride. The lazurite, of lapis, forms when molten lava seeps into crevices in limestone (contact metamorphism), where the intense heat and pressure fuels chemical changes in the mineral, nepheline, which is very much like feldspar.G18

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Lazurite, with its sulfur anions, gives lapis a deep blue to greenish blue color. Some other blue minerals exist, like the carbonate, azurite and the phosphate, lazulite, but a good gemologist can readily distinguish between them.G19

History of Lapis

One of lapis’ principal components, lazurite, is so beautiful that a chemist ventured to describe its color, commenting that the,

“… intense blue background of this gemstone together with its golden specs of pyrite (called ‘Fool’s Gold’ because of its resemblance to actual gold) give it a radiant appearance that some compare to the beauty of a starry night sky.” (American Chemistry Council, 2007)G20

That’s quite a charming description, coming from a page on “Chlorine Chemistry!”

Humans have treasured lapis lazuli, called, “lapis,” for short, far back into time. It has been mined since the Neolithic Age, in Afghanistan, and it was the blue on the eyebrows of King Tutankhamun’s funeral mask (1341-1323 BC). Archeologists documented a dagger with a lapis handle, a lapis-inlayed bowl, amulets, beads, and inlays in the Royal Tombs of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, dating back to the 3rd Millennium BC. A softer, green-veined, mineral, Lapis armenus, also called, “Armenian stone,” or, “lapis stellatus,” resembles lapis lazuli so much, that artists may treat it as the same mineral.G21

Much of today’s lapis comes from northeastern Afghanistan, but it’s also produced in Russia, Chile, Italy, Mongolia, the United States, Canada, Angola, Argentina, Burma, Pakistan, Canada, Italy, and India. In North America, California and Colorado mine lapis.

Lapis has an interesting etymology or history of its development as a word. The Arabs and Persians mined lapis long ago, and were the world’s first major suppliers of the mineral. They referred to it as “لازورد,” (“lāzaward”) and, “لاژورد,” (lāžaward), respectively. The latter name also referred to the place where the Persians mined their lapis.G22

Medieval Latin adapted the word, as, “lazuli,” which, later gave rise to the Latin word, “lapis,” meaning “stone.” The name of the stone came to be associated with its color. The Medieval Latin word, “lazuli” also gave rise to words referring to the color, blue, in English (azure), French (azur), Italian (azzurro), Polish (lazur), Romanian (azur and azuriu), Portuguese (azul), Spanish (azul), and Hungarian (azúr). It’s obvious that the blue gem from the Middle East had an enormous impact on languages for centuries after the Persians began mining it.


Contributing Author – Jeffery Bacon

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