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Lapis Lazuli

Conflict diamonds may be in the news but lapis lazuli may have been one of the first gems that financed a war. During the spring of 1985, lapis lazuli became a hot topic on Capitol Hill.

The subject first came up during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Afghanistan, the prime source of lapis and the scene of a then six-year-old war between Moslem rebels and the Soviet-backed government of Babrak Karmal. Moslem freedom fighters testified that sales of lapis rough were a major means by which they raised cash for arms deeded to fight invading Russian troops.

Ironically, the rebels may well have borrowed the idea of selling lapis to raise weapons money from their opponents. In early 1984, the government of Afghanistan advertised an auction for tons of lapis rough.

Of all the many gems found in Afghanistan (the country also produces ruby, emerald and kunzite, among other species), lapis most readily lends itself to being used as a cash cow for weapons procurement. As a lapis source, Afghanistan has no competition in terms of quantity or quality. While the Soviet Union mines this mineral on a limited basis, the only other sizeable supply is found in Chile whose softer, paler, slightly greenish material has less status among connoisseurs.

That left war-torn Afghanistan with a de facto monopoly on this venerable blue beauty. Still, the idea of buying lapis to help finance a war was a bit jarring since the gem has long been associated with peace, at least spiritual peace. At one point, the ancients mistakenly called lapis “sapphirus” because of its deep heavenly blue. But even after this confusion was corrected, the gem preserved its connection with the firmament when it was given the name it is still known by, lapis lazuli- a mixture of Latin (lapis for stone) and Arabic (allazward for sky blue) meaning literally “azure stone.”

Given such connotations, it is hardly surprising that the Sumerians- the supreme lapis lovers of antiquity- were willing to spend years traveling from one end of Asia to the other on mining expeditions for the gem. Author Benjamin Zucker relates in his book “A Connoisseur’s Guide to Gems and Jewelry” that during the Middle Ages ruling class art patrons demanded that painters use blue made from ground lapis, by then known as “ultramarine”. Men of less means had to tolerate cheaper, second-string blue pigments made from indigo or copper.

Today, interest in lapis is as strong as it has ever been, only now it’s decidedly secular. Nevertheless, the lapis market looks to grow even stronger now that the stone with heaven’s blue has become a men’s ring mainstay. Prospects are good, in fact, that it will gain even more ground.

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Lapis Lazuli