Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Some remarks on lapis lazuli

My first close encounter with lapis lazuli was when I was a curatorial assistant many years ago in the ancient Near Eastern Art Dept. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There I saw the wonderful cobalt blue lapis lazuli objects from the Royal Graves at Ur. Some of these items are in the MMA, some in the British Museum, and some at The U of Pennsylvania Penn Museum, as well as what may remain in the museum in Baghdad. For example, the well known "ram caught in a thicket" at the Penn Museum and the bull headed lyre have very high quality lapis inlay. Lapis was imported in quantity to Sumer/Mesopotamia as early as 3500 B.C. and was used perhaps as early as 6000 BC The only probable source is Badakhshan,in Afghanistan.


I was very attracted to lapis lazuli and will never forget seeing it there. As a consequence I always wanted to have some. The most famous and still the best quality of lapis (short for lapis lazuli) comes from Badakhshan in Afghanistan. When I left the MMA to go to Iran to live and work I went via Afghanistan. Yes, backwards I know but it was a wonderful chance to get a peek at that country. The curatorial staff at the MMA knew my plans and needed a photo of a craftsman using a bow drill. When I arrived in Kabul I found a man sitting on the sidewalk in Chicken Street drilling holes in lapis lazuli beads with a bow drill. I took a lot of pictures of him drilling the beads. I also bought a matched sets of beads from him which I had made into earrings. They were a rich blue with typical gold pyrite sprinkles. I no longer have those pictures, too bad, as I sent them all back to the MMA .Indeed one was published. I wish I could find the reference. If I succeed I'll post it here. That was my first purchase of lapis lazuli.

Since that time I have acquired pieces of lapis in greatly varying quality. In these photos I hope you will be able to see the range of color in extremely blue lapis with little or no pyrite, calcite or other inclusions. The best lapis I acquired was over ten years ago. Most of this was in the form of small shaped beads. In the last few years I have seen very little of such pure color, and much of that is old stock. I know it still is being sold but I am told the AA ad AAA quality is so expensive and already spoken for that you rarely see it on the market.

This picture was taken of lapis lazuli polished rough in 2005 at the Silk Road Treasures booth at Gem Mall.
Add ImageMost of the lapis lazuli I have is from Afghanistan and has the typical matte surface. Nowadays you see it mostly with a high polish. Most of it has quite a bit of white calcite as well as the gold pyrite, and sometimes greenish inclusions. It also comes in a much darker blue. Now the bulk of the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan is sent to China for shaping and polishing. You don't see the matte finish often except that sold by a limited number of dealers, my friends among them, who acquire it from Afghan craftsmen in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Shown from in order from top left to bottom right are:

High grade round lapis beads showing the range of color
A necklace and earrings I created with an Afghan pendant, a bead strand and beads of high quality lapis
High quality matte finished lapis carved beads
Lapis beads shaped and polished in China
Two strands of lower quality lapis beads, the top strand a gift from Iran, and below, a strand of lapis finished in China bought this year at the Tucson 2010 Gem Mall show
Two strands of lower quality lapis beads, the top strand a gift from Iran, and below, a strand of lapis finished in China bought this year at the Tucson 2010 Gem Mall show
Selection of lower quality beads and pendant, the latter showing the less valuable darker blue














The rough, and many of the shaped pieces are sold by the gram. The price of course varies by quality but a wholesale price of $.25 per gram is common for an average grade.

Lapis lazuli (lapis for short) is a rock, that is, a material composed of a number of different minerals. The blue color is mainly from the mineral lazurite. The large amounts of this is what gives the Afghan lapis its massive areas of outstanding blue. The other primary minerals from which lapis lazuli is composed are calcite and gold colored pyrite. Also present may be sodalite, hauyne, diopside, feldspar and more. The varying amounts and kinds of the minerals in the lapis affect the color of the lapis.

Lapis from other areas, primarily Chile and Russia, generally contain a higher proportion of white calcite and are not considered to be of the same high quality.

Lapis lazuli was used not only for shaped pieces and inlay in many different cultures, but was also ground into powder and used for makeup in ancient Egypt, and in paint pigments until it was replaced with a synthetic in 1828.







Typical Afghan Jewelry with lapis lazuli inlay and beads (top),
Necklaces I created using freshwater pearl and Afghan lapis pendant, and Afghan lapis, carnelian and Afghan jade (serpentine)with Afghan pendant. (bottom)

The most common lookalikes include sodalite, a mineral closely related to and sometimes included in lapis lazuli, and dumortierite (denim lapis), a mineral, which is much harder than lapis lazuli.



Useful web links for references:

Reference for the photos of objects from Ur
http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v56/n09/ur.html

Information on the rock-lapis lazuli
http://www.gemsociety.org/info/gems/Lapis.htm
http://www.cst.cmich.edu/users/dietr1rv/
http://www.mindat.org/index.php
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lapis_lazuli
http://books.google.com/books?id=wm_X_LzoN-cC&pg=PA184&lpg=PA184&dq=oldershaw,+lapis+lazuli&source=bl&ots=1C6o829LzY&sig=NIXTKfGzbL3UEc6vqnwN5oFjmc4&hl=en&ei=NeieS7ywBI2KNKeHmfAM&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CBIQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Images of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan,Chile, Russia and Tajikistan:
http://www.mindat.org/gallery.php?min=2330

History and mining:
Excerpt from Peter Bancroft. Gem and Crystal Treasures (1984) Western Enterprises/Mineralogical Record, Fallbrook, CA, 488 pp.
http://www.palagems.com/lapis_lazuli_bancroft.htm

Georgina Herrmann. Lapis lauli: the early phases of its trade.
http://www.jstor.org/pss/4199836

Lazurite: http://webmineral.com/specimens/gallery.php?st=61&init=L
http://www.webmineral.com/data/Lazurite.shtml
http://www.answers.com/topic/lazurite
Sodalite: http://www.mindat.org/min-3701.html
http://www.cst.cmich.edu/users/dietr1rv/sodalite.htm
Dumortierite: http://www.mindat.org/min-1329.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumortierite

4 comments:

Rayela Art said...

Wonderful and informative post, Anita! I like the matte finish best...

I didn't know you had worked for the MMA! How interesting that must have been. I hope you find those photos that you took in Afghanistan. That would be so interesting to see. You got to go, the rest of us just have to enjoy all of it vicariously...

Love your work and hope that you keep at it for a long, long time!

Deerwoman Designs said...

I hope you can figure out which captions go with which photos, It's not WYSYWG and every time I thought zi had it right they appeared in a different order....I give up.

Anita-Deerwoman

john said...

The blog you have posted has been very useful to me. It has provided me with all essential details about the lapis beads that are available of late.

Pink opal beads Exporter

Deerwoman Designs said...

John, I'm so glad you found this useful. The bright blue with minimal inclusions is the highest quality. But be very careful about dyed lapis. There is a lot of that.

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