The Crystallisation of Commerce | A History of Lapiz Lazuli

Conceived in the womb of the earth, gems form naturally as minerals within the Earth’s crust. These gifts from nature have both signified wealth as well as created it for thousands of millennia. From the silicon chips we use in our devices; to the sapphires we use in wristwatches–humans have utilised the power of gemstones for both practical and spiritual purposes.

The Earth is our Mother and she is a treasure trove to be honoured.

A Gem’s Journey

A raw gemstone emerges from the Earth’s womb. Its appearance does not accurately convey its true value. Until the gemstone undergoes a process of refinement, its true value remains concealed and hidden. Even the story of its journey from simplicity to splendour remains disguised to keep it away from prying eyes.

After all, gemstones begin their journey on the Earth as rocks. Many minerals must come together to form a unique and beautiful crystal. Out of these crystals emerge magnificent gemstones: the most valuable of all crystals. When raw and uncut, gems look really quite ordinary. But your eyes are simply deceiving you.

Raw sapphire stones

Once gems are extracted, cut and polished; their lustre and brilliance shine brightly for everyone to admire, love and covet.

It takes thousands to millions of years for gemstones to form. Their rarity coupled with the tough process of extraction has permitted them a position of unparalleled status as a valuable commodity throughout history.

There are, in total, six crystal systems. Five prerequisites must come together for a gemstone to form naturally. These are: the ingredients, temperature, pressure, time and space. The right combination of ingredients, heat, and pressure must last long enough for the minerals to crystallise. 

As a trader, investor and businessperson; I believe that there is something sacrosanct about understanding the journey of the commodity that we purchase for either personal or commercial use. The history of trade between peoples of the world is widely known to have started with barter; which over a long period of time evolved into an increasingly complex system of international trade that encompasses the entire world economy. No country or human being that exists today is untouched by the invisible hand of commerce.

Lapis Lazuli

Long-range trade routes first appeared in the 3rd millennium BCE, when Sumerians in Mesopotamia traded with the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley.

Badakshan–a region in modern-day Afghanistan–is a mountainous terrain that is bare of any vegetation. The mountains rise as high as 17,000 feet and are filled with ravines. Humans brave the treacherous journey to this inhospitable terrain for one reason and one reason alone–so that they may find the azure treasure that is lapis lazuli.

Crystals of lazurite (the main mineral in lapis’s lazuli) from the Sar-i Sang mine in Afghanistan, where lapis lazuli has been mined since the 7th Millennium BCE

Lapis lazuli is a gemstone valued for its deep blue colour. The gold flecks of pyrite that characterise the azure stone have been christened as specks of stardust. If we gaze at the stone long enough, we can see the cosmos reflected on earth.

Bactria–as the region was known in 700 BCE–is the world’s oldest known commercial gemstone source. Merchant caravans transported the coveted blue cargo from Bactria and brought it to the great cities of the ancient Greeks, Indians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Persians.

Lapis Lazuli was among the first gemstones ever to be worn for adornment. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Lapis was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, a blue pigment highly prized by artists.

Powdered lapis lazuli

Interestingly, the lapis mines that were producing then are still producing today. Presently, the two most important sources of lapiz lazuli are the mines in Badakhshan, Afghanistan and those near Ovalle, Chile. The mines west of Lake Baikal in Russia are also a source of this beautiful blue stone.

Lapis lazuli artefacts dated 7570 BCE have been found at Bhirrana–modern day Haryana–which is the oldest site of Indus Valley Civilisation. During the height of the Indus Valley Civilisation, approximately 2000 BCE, the Harappan colony, now known as Shortugai, was established near the lapis mines.

In the Sumerian myths, Goddess Inanna enters the underworld bearing the symbols of her rank which includes a lapis lazuli necklace and rod. The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in modern day Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of animals as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. Egyptian burial sites also contained thousands of pieces of jewellery items–many of which were lapis. Powdered lapis was favoured by Egyptian women for use in cosmetics. Pliny the Elder has described the stone as ‘a fragment of the starry firmament’.

May the captivating blue hue forever remind us of the ocean and the sky–the two bodies that remain mysterious no matter how much we discover.

Ancient Egyptian scarab finger ring; 1850–1750 BC; lapis lazuli scarab set in gold plate and on a gold wire ring lapis-lazuli, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This post is co-authored by Dipa Sanatani and Helios