It could be considered a negetive side effect of the pandemic that hardly any gems are arriving in this country at the moment, or it could actually be viewed as a benefit… it means that we’ve been forced to really sort out our stock and find lovely things we’ve forgotten about, and make something with them. This is exactly how we came across some very beautiful – and quite old – slices of lapis that Polly had bought when she was a student all those years ago, and while I’ve known about lapis forever – who hasn’t? – I’ve never really known anything about it, so this seemed like the perfect time to do some digging – as it were.
Lapis is one of the oldest, if not the oldest known gem. The Egyptians were very partial to it, as we know, and it has been mined in northern Afghanistan, which is where the Egyptians got it from, for milennia, and it still is today. It was traded all over the near East and to the countries on the Mediterranean which explains it making appearances throughout history, really. The Greeks and the Romans loved it and it appears in pieces of jewellery as far back as Neolithic times. There’s a mention in the bible of sapphires, but it’s widely believed that actually it was lapis that was being referred to because sapphire was not a well known stone at that time and in that place.
Interestingly lapis (the latin for ‘stone’) lazuli (from the Persian word Lazhuwad, meaning blue) is not a mineral, it’s a rock which is full of different minerals such as lazurite, sodalite, pyrite, calcite and many others, the region from which it comes determining the content of each mineral. It’s lazurite that makes it blue, calcite that gives it white streaks, and pyrite that gives it its well known gold flecks. The general concensus is that the bluer and clearer the lapis the better, but the less purist among us like the imperfections of pyrite because it makes it look more real, somehow, a bit like matrix in turquoise. The most important lapis mines are in Afghanistan but of course material from there is not so readily available these days. It is also mined in the Andes, Lake Baikal in Russia, and smaller amounts from Italy, Pakistan and North America. Lapis from each of these areas is different because the mineral content varies widely.
But jewellery is not the only use for lapis. In the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg are a collection of urns two meters high, carved in lapis, jasper, rhodonite and other semi precious stones found in Russia. Commissioned by Tzar Nicholas for the Winter Palace, they took years to make and were only brought out and displayed at Christmas and Easter.
Lapis was used to make bowls, jars and dagger handles, and the Victorians used it to make hair combs, among other things. But probably the most famouse use of lapis, other than in jewellery, is as a paint pigment. Very finely ground lapis is the real ultramarine paint, the name ultramarine coming from the latin word ultramarinus meaning ‘beyond the sea’ because it was imported into Europe from Afghanistan by Italian traders. The earliest examples of painting with lapis, and indeed with oil, date back to 6th and 7th Century cave paintings found in Afghanistan close to the source of the stone. It was also one of the most sought after pigments in the Renaissance, but it was incredibly expensive (the process of grinding and binding the powder to make a useable paint took a long time and hard work) so it was reserved primarily for paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. A notable exception to this rule are paintings by Vermeer who favoured ultramarine and presumably had patrons who could afford it. A wonderful example of this is his painting of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, in which he mixed ultramarine and lead white and then put a thin glaze of pure ultramarine over it, a less expensive but equally effective option. Faberge made one of his famous eggs from lapis, but it was a private commission and not one made for the Tsarina of Russia. It is not known who commissioned the egg but now it resides in a museum in Cleveland.
For me, though, one of the most exquisite uses of lapis is in this little tiny pill box made in gold with a lapis top. Polly made it when she was a student. She’s been a very clever girl for a very long time!
Let it never be said that magpies are an undiscerning breed and will pick up anything shiny, but it’s true that a little shimmer of pyrite gold running through a bright blue stone will bring out the pirate in all of us – ha ha.