Perhaps lapis lazuli is the oldest of the rocks to be considered a gemstone. Its beautiful deep blue was prized by pharaohs in ancient Egypt and continues to be prized today. The finest specimens are lightly dusted with minute flecks of golden pyrite, which identify the stone as genuine.
The most beautiful lapis lazuli comes from Afghanistan, where the mines which are worked today might well have been in operation to get the stones for the pharaohs. Lapis has also been found in the Andes, and to some extent in Russia, Angola, Burma, Canada and in California and Colorado in the USA, but no stone from these places is the vibrant intense blue of that from Afghanistan.
The ancient Egyptians favored lapis lazuli for amulets and the Assyrians and Babylonians used it for seals. Egyptian ladies used powdered lapis as eye shadow and the Romans thought it a powerful aphrodisiac. Artists using blue colors in Medieval Illuminated manuscripts and Renaissance paintings found the ultramarine tempera paint derived from lapis lazuli to be very expensive. When oil paint was introduced during the Renaissance, artists found that the beautiful blue was diminished when mixed with oil, so the use of ultramarine declined. Most artists today use synthetic versions of blue colors, but there are a few pigment companies that still produce the genuine ultramarine.
Lapis lazuli can polished to make beautiful jewelry, and can be carved into figurines, statuettes and vases. Near the Euphrates River in the lower regions of Iraq, the ancient Sumerian tombs yielded thousands of carved artifacts of lapis lazuli, and in parts of Afghanistan, artisan craftsmen are still using this beautiful stone.