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A - 9 : The Finest and Most Expensive Stone

Lapis Lazuli is a deep blue, semi-precious stone that has been sought after by the earliest civilisations in the Middle East. We know from archeological evidence that it was mined for at least 6’500 years in North - Eastern Afghanistan. The semi - precious stone was widely used in the Indus Valley Civilisation (around 3’000 BC) for decorative luxury goods and jewellery and of the first goods traded across the Indian Ocean. We do not know when the semi - precious stone reached Egypt but Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan were used to make the funeral mask of King Tut who died in 1323 BC.

Lapis Lazuli traders in Afghanistan

Funeral Bust of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tut Each Amun (1343 - 1324 BC)

Lapis Lazuli continued to be widely used during the Roman Empire and formed, together with silk, pearls and spices the back - bone of the Roman trade with India. This trade also continued during Arab times and Merchants from Italy and Constantinople were always buyers of the stone, albeit in limited quantities. The stone was mainly used for decorative domestic purposes since the medieval dress code did not allow women to openly wear jewellery.

Roman Artifacts

Demand for Lapis Lazuli changed with the arrival of the Renaissance when realistic paintings replaced the more two dimensional medieval art. Young painters were looking for intensive colours and the pigments of ground Lapis Lazuli produced the “finest and most expensive blue in the world". Ultramarine, as the colour was also called, was primarily used for the clothing of Mother Mary in religious paintings. But it can also be found in famous paintings from Titian and Vermeer

Pulverised Lapis Lazuli used for pigments

Wilton Diptych, The Virgin and the Child (1394)

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665

Trading in Lapis Lazuli, mostly already ground to powder, thus increased sharply and became an essential commodity for Venetian Merchants who brought it from the Levant to Italy. It would take the industrial revolution in the 19th century to come up with a synthetic ultramarine that could replace the intense colour of ground Lapis. A Lapis Lazuli for the Girl with the Pearl Earring!

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