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Lapis lazuli is a rock, which means it is made up of several minerals, this gem contains varying amounts of lazurite, calcite, and pyrite. It often shows the calcite matrix and/or flecks or veins of golden pyrite but can also have a very uniform color, free of visible pyrite or calcite. The most-prized form of lapis lazuli has no visible calcite, although it might have gold-colored pyrite flecks. If the flecks are small and sprinkled attractively throughout the gem, their presence does not lower the value. The lowest-quality lapis is dull and green, the result of an excess of pyrite.
At between 5 and 6 on the Mohs hardness scale, lapis lazuli is not among the hardest of gemstones, but if it becomes worn, it can be easily repolished. It is easy to work with and takes an excellent polish, however, cutting lapis lazuli causes an unpleasant smell caused mainly by the sulphur content of the stone. It is often made into jewelry, carvings, boxes, ornaments, small statues and vases. We've seen very large obelisks for outside display made from lapis, since the bright blue color does not fade in the sun it works for these types of displays and they are beautiful!
During the Renaissance, lapis was ground and processed to make the pigment ultramarine for use in frescoes and oil painting. Its usage as a pigment in oil paint largely ended in the early 19th century when a synthetic variety became available. Powdered lapis was even used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra!
One of our favorite facts about lapis is that it was one of the stones in the biblical 'Breastplate of Judgment' of Aaron. There are many references to sapphires in the Old Testament, but most scholars agree that, since sapphire was not known before the Roman Empire, they most likely are references to lapis lazuli. In Exodus 24:10, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone..." (KJV). Modern translations of the Bible, such as the New Living Translation refer to lapis lazuli in most instances instead of sapphire.
Today, mines in northeast Afghanistan are still the major source of lapis lazuli. Important amounts are also produced from mines in Russia and in Chile. Smaller quantities are mined in Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada.
Tumbled chunks of Lapis Lazuli with prominent streaks of pyrite