Most of the times I hunt beautiful gemstone beads on one of my travels. I have to since in the Netherlands you hardly find locally found gems. Just by accident, I walk on the Waterloo Square market in Amsterdam and there I see a beautiful dark blue with a little golden gemstone in one of the boots. A magpie, as I am, my eyes stare straight away to that gemstone. I start to negotiate with the seller, but he sticks to his price, about €250 or $271 per kilo / 2.2 pound. He watches my ‘unhappy’ face and asks ‘do you know why lapis lazuli is so expensive?’
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At a deserted place, you find the best lapis lazuli
There is only one place in the world where you find high-quality lapis lazuli. That place is in the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. You drive a long and dangerous way through the Kokcha Valley to a small mining village of Sar-e-Sang. There are about 300-600 miners living here who try to find some lapis lazuli. They get paid by what they find and a small daily salary, too little to live and too much to die.
The climate is harsh, very hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. There are a lot of earthquakes and landslides. On top of it, this place is very important for the Mujahideen. They use the gemstone to provide for the necessary funds to fight against the Russians. Lately, the Taliban try to get their hands on profitable mining activities, but until now without success.
To work in the mines of Sar-e-Sang is not without risk. The path to the mines is steep and full of loose rocks so you slip easily here. When you enter the mine the shafts are sometimes more than 200 meters long and nowhere the ceiling is propped up. The miners drill holes in the walls for the dynamite to ‘explode the lapis lazuli out of here’. They don’t have any protection so lung problems are very frequent here.
In the old days, there is no dynamite available. Then the miners bring bushes into the mine, make large fires and extinguish the fires with ice-cold water of the Kokcha River. Due to the temperature changes the rock split and hopefully then they find some lapis lazuli.
There are many mines in the surroundings of Sar-e-Sang and in every mine, you find different qualities of lapis lazuli. The best is ‘Sorghpas’ variety, which you find in the Koh-e-Laguard mine. It is pure dark blue, without gray inclusions and with a little bit of pyrite, that gives it the golden touch.
Knowing that this high-quality of Lapis Lazuli is so difficult to mine. And that it has to be transported from rural unreachable Afghanistan through Pakistan via the old Silk Route to the Western countries. And the fact that it is so popular with the kings and VIPs since ages and ages. You know now why this semi-precious gemstone is so expensive.
What is lapis lazuli exactly?
It is a metamorphic rock, which means that the rock has been changed by extreme heat and pressure due to volcanic activity. Under these circumstances the substance changes especially when other minerals fluid into the rock. Lapis lazuli is made from lazurite, which gives the gemstone the blue color, from pyrite what causes the golden spots in the gem and white Calcite that turns out in a grayish vain in the lapis lazuli. The best quality is colored deep blue with tiny little golden spots. The gemstone is not very hard, 5 on the Moh’s scale.
Popular for a long time already
Lapis lazuli is not only in our time a popular gemstone. It is trendy since the day the miners find the first piece of the blue stone in the 7th century BC. We know (due to the grave finds) that this stone is ‘wanted’ by the kings and the VIPs in the Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1900 BC). The best-known example of this is the death mask of the Egyptian Pharao Tutankhamon, decorated with lapis lazuli and gold. But you see also other examples of statues, jewelry, and decorative items in the musea.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the gemstone travels from Afghanistan to the Western countries. Not only to make jewelry out of it, but people use it also for making ultramarine. That is a powder, made of Lapis lazuli, and the famous Dutch painters Vermeer and Rembrandt use it to get the perfect blue paint. In another blog post, I tell you more about it.
Lapis lazuli or sodalite?
Since lapis lazuli is so expensive people look for gemstones that look like it. Most of the time people come up with sodalite, which is a beautiful gemstone but not ‘the real’. The base is more white and there are other differences. Have a look at this video where it is well explained.
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