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Lapis lazuli is a brilliant blue gemstone, which, unlike other gems, is opaque rather than translucent. Lapis is a combination of several minerals, among them lazurite, sodium, aluminum and pyrite. Because it is made of so many minerals, lapis lazuli is called a rock rather than a mineral, which also differs from most other gems.
Archaeologists have dated the use of lapis lazuli back 7,000 years. Finds in Egyptian tombs revealed the stone used not only in jewelry, but also in other decorative objects like boxes, scarabs, and carvings. Ancient Egyptians also made amulets from the stones. Other finds suggest ground lapis may have been used as eye shadow. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, painters used ground lapis to create the bright blue paints associated with the art of both periods.
Today, most lapis lazuli derives from Afghanistan, and miners search for stones with the deepest blues, sparkling all over from pyrite, or fool’s gold, deposits. The best stones may still be used in carvings for jewelry boxes or as stones for jewelry pieces. Lapis lazuli is also favored among those who craft their own jewelry, as it is often available in bead form. The stones lend themselves well to carving, although they exhibit a somewhat unpleasant odor when carving. Those who carve lapis lazuli must wear protective gear to avoid silica deposits in the lungs.
In bead form, lapis lazuli is available in many varieties and is quite reasonable in price, though greater quality means greater prices. One can find lapis lazuli in spindles, drums, faceted tubes, briolettes and beautiful round beads. Round stones have been used for centuries in prized rosary beads.
Beads for craftwork are often purchased in strings. Lapis lazuli strings in spindle shape can be less than 1 US dollar (USD) per bead. Larger beads, like large faceted tubes, may be around 3 USD per bead. A number of internet sites offer discounts on large purchases, and gem fairs are also a good source for finding strings of lapis.
Loose stones are also generally inexpensive. They tend to be measured in grams rather than carats, so it is well to remember that a carat is equal to half a gram. 3-4 gram stones can be as inexpensive as 30 USD, though larger, higher quality stones may top out at 40 USD per gram.
In ring settings, lapis lazuli requires care, as it has a hardness of only 5-6 on the Mohs Scale. It probably should not be worn while doing everyday tasks such as housecleaning. Buyers looking for the best quality should also inquire from suppliers whether the stone has been dyed, as some lapis may be colored to imitate better quality stones.
Wearing lapis lazuli today is thought, as it was in ancient times, to be a symbol of truth. It is associated with healing, and may also serve as a gateway to the spirit world in certain beliefs. It is also tied to Roman Catholicism, as most paintings of the Virgin Mary created during the Middle Ages and Renaissance contained lapis. In this way, lapis lazuli may be considered both mystical and pure.