Most of the time I hunt beautiful gemstone beads on one of my travels and one of my favorites is the lapis lazuli. 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 at that gemstone. I start to negotiate with the seller, but he sticks to his price, about €250 or $271 per kilo / 2.2 pounds. He watches my ‘unhappy’ face and asks ‘do you know why lapis lazuli is so expensive?’
At a deserted place, is 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 to 600 miners living here who try to find some lapis lazuli of good quality. They get paid by what they find and that means 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. So the miners have to deal with dangerous circumstances too and they cannot defend themselves properly. Lately, the Taliban try to get their hands on profitable mining activities, but until now without success.
They are mining already for more than 9000 years.
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.
This semi-precious gemstone is so expensive.
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, which gives it the golden touch.
Knowing that this high-quality 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 for 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 which 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 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.
The most expensive eye shadow ever.
Let me tell you the story about the most expensive eye shadow in the world. As a history student, I spend some time in Egypt to help excavate the recently discovered tombs of the Pharaohs in Luxor (Valley of the Kings). Hard job! I had to drive by donkey every day from Luxor to the excavation site and back. My most important job there is… dusting stones. Right, old stones but still stones.
What comes out of all that dust are beautiful paintings of the people who are buried in that particular grave. The colors are exceptional, even after so many years. One of my professors told me the story of Cleopatra and showed me that lapis lazuli is the most expensive eye shadow ever.
We talk about the ancient Egyptians who live 5000 years ago. They live partly in the desert and partly near the Nile. The sun is bright and the sand of the Sahara is very hot. And sunglasses are not invented yet.
Those clever Egyptians discover that when you use thick eye paint around your eyes it helps the eyes to cope with the bright afternoon sunlight. They use a thick paste made of malachite, a darker green gemstone. I see this before me… all those Egyptians with dark green eye shadows, even for the men.
As a woman, you need a little variation…
In the first century, BC Cleopatra comes into power and she claims that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. That is a matter of taste. But she is definitely the most powerful woman and the richest girl in the region of the Middle East.
For instance, she pulverizes a very very expensive pearl in a glass of wine, just to win a bet with her lover Marc Anthony. Anyway, this Pharaoh Cleopatra can afford a lot of high-priced jewelry, clothing, and palaces and does not mind spending a fortune on make-up. She uses the most expensive eye shadow in the world.
She uses a paste of malachite green for her lower eyelids. And a deep blue eye shadow with gold-colored flecks (pyrite), made of lapis lazuli to use on her upper eyelids. This is a bit beside the subject but as a lipstick, she uses a red-colored clay that gets its color from iron oxide. And her eyebrows are colored with a paste made of lead sulfide and fat of animals. I don’t think this is healthy and proved by the Health Inspection. Well, beauty has its price, also when you use the most expensive eye shadow ever, and at the time the people die early.
An expensive eye shadow made of lapis lazuli
In another blog post, I explain why lapis lazuli is so expensive. Expensive now but also in those days. Imagine… nowadays 1 kilo or 2.2 pounds lapis lazuli cost about €250 or $270. And that is not all, because you cannot use solid lapis lazuli on your eyes and boast about your expensive eye shadow. You have to pulverize it and you lose a lot of material in the process. From a one-kilo solid gemstone, you get about 20-30 grams of eye shadow. Therefore pulverized lapis lazuli is a very expensive eye shadow. Have a look at this video on how this works out.
Other options for pulverized lapis lazuli
In the 6th and 7th centuries Afghan people made murals in caves close by the mine where they find the lapis lazuli. In China, you find murals painted with lapis lazuli from the 10th and 11th centuries. India follows from the 11th century.
The lapis lazuli begins to turn up in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. It is not so much used as a gemstone, but the pigment, called ‘ultramarine’ or ‘from the other side of the sea’ becomes popular as a pigment. The ships with the gem arrive in Venice and the artists there recognize the possibilities of gemstone and use it in the paint to make a special shade of blue.
They use blue to paint the clothing of important people in the painting, like the Virgin Mary. But we see the ultramarine paint also in Medieval books, made by hand, and then especially the first character of the chapter that looks like a kind of mini-painting. Nuns, scribes, and monks work with the ultramarine. We know that for sure since we find ultramarine in the dental tartar of their skeletons. No toothbrush and a lot of cleaning their fingers with their mouth, I suppose.
The famous Dutch painters use lapis lazuli paint.
In the Renaissance famous Dutch painters, like Vermeer (the Milkmaid) and Rembrandt used ultramarine. In those days this blue paint is very expensive. Luckily, they work in order and can calculate the costs in the price.
The trip from Afghanistan to Europe and the process to make from lapis lazuli the pigment ultramarine make it so expensive. There is a source that says that Albrecht Dürer pays in 1521 twelve golden ducats for 100 grams ultramarine, about $1800 now.
The pigment is made in Venice in those days and for example, the Dutch painter Vermeer buys this material from a pharmacist. It is a very difficult process and it costs time and so money. Therefore it is so exceptional that Vermeer uses so much ultramarine in his painting ‘the Milkmaid’). Not only for the parts that have to be blue according to the artist but also in the skirt of the girl and the table cloth. And it is even more exceptional because at the time ultramarine is mostly used for religious figures.
In the 16th and 17th centuries on one way or the other, the supply of lapis lazuli stops, and the pigment ultramarine becomes more expensive than the price of gold.
In 1828 a cheaper option comes on the market. The French man Guimet invents a process to produce artificial ultramarine.
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.
Lapis lazuli is a breathtaking gemstone, the wonderful dark blue matches with golden beads, perfectly. But maybe you want another blue bead and you have no idea what gemstones are blue, or occur in blue color? What gemstone matches your outfit best? And you also want some more information about all kinds of gemstones?
FlorenceJewelshop published a gemstone color chart, where you can find all the well-known gemstones, their colors, and extra information. A real ‘must-have’. Well, it is free of charge. So just let me know where I can send it to.
Hug Florence of FlorenceJewelshop