1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lapis lazuli

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LAPIS LAZULI, or azure stone,[1] a mineral substance valued for decorative purposes in consequence of the fine blue colour which it usually presents. It appears to have been the sapphire of ancient writers: thus Theophrastus describes the σάπφειρος as being spotted with gold-dust, a description quite inappropriate to modern sapphire, but fully applicable to lapis lazuli, for this stone frequently contains disseminated particles of iron-pyrites of gold-like appearance. Pliny, too, refers to the sapphirus as a stone sprinkled with specks of gold; and possibly an allusion to the same character may be found in Job xxviii. 6. The Hebrew sappir, denoting a stone in the High Priest’s breastplate, was probably lapis lazuli, as acknowledged in the Revised Version of the Bible. With the ancient Egyptians lapis lazuli was a favourite stone for amulets and ornaments such as scarabs; it was also used to a limited extent by the Assyrians and Babylonians for cylinder seals. It has been suggested that the Egyptians obtained it from Persia in exchange for their emeralds. When the lapis lazuli contains pyrites, the brilliant spots in the deep blue matrix invite comparison with the stars in the firmament. The stone seems to have been sometimes called by ancient writers κύανος. It was a favourite material with the Italians of the Cinquecento for vases, small busts and other ornaments. Magnificent examples of the decorative use of lapis lazuli are to be seen in St Petersburg, notably in the columns of St Isaac’s cathedral. The beautiful blue colour of lapis lazuli led to its employment, when ground and levigated, as a valuable pigment known as ultramarine (q.v.), a substance now practically displaced by a chemical product (artificial ultramarine).

Lapis lazuli occurs usually in compact masses, with a finely granular structure; and occasionally, but only as a great rarity, it presents the form of the rhombic dodecahedron. Its specific gravity is 2.38 to 2.45, and its hardness about 5.5, so that being comparatively soft it tends, when polished, to lose its lustre rather readily. The colour is generally a fine azure or rich Berlin blue, but some varieties exhibit green, violet and even red tints, or may be altogether colourless. The colour is sometimes improved by heating the stone. Under artificial illumination the dark-blue stones may appear almost black. The mineral is opaque, with only slight translucency at thin edges.

Analyses of lapis lazuli show considerable variation in composition, and this led long ago to doubt as to its homogeneity. This doubt was confirmed by the microscopic studies of L. H. Fischer, F. Zirkel and H. P. J. Vogelsang, who found that sections showed bluish particles in a white matrix; but it was reserved for Professor W. C. Brögger and H. Bäckström, of Christiania, to separate the several constituents and subject them to analysis, thus demonstrating the true constitution of lapis lazuli, and proving that it is a rock rather than a definite mineral species. The essential part of most lapis lazuli is a blue mineral allied to sodalite and crystallized in the cubic system, which Brögger distinguishes as lazurite, but this is intimately associated with a closely related mineral which has long been known as haüyne, or haüynite. The lazurite, sometimes regarded as true lapis lazuli, is a sulphur-bearing sodium and aluminium silicate, having the formula: Na4(NaS3Al) Al2 (SiO4)3. As the lazurite and the haüynite seem to occur in molecular intermixture, various kinds of lapis lazuli are formed; and it has been proposed to distinguish some of them as lazurite-lapis and haüyne-lapis, according as one or the other mineral prevails. The lazurite of lapis lazuli is to be carefully distinguished from lazulite, an aluminium-magnesium phosphate, related to turquoise. In addition to the blue cubic minerals in lapis lazuli, the following minerals have also been found: a non-ferriferous diopside, an amphibole called, from the Russian mineralogist, koksharovite, orthoclase, plagioclase, a muscovite-like mica, apatite, titanite, zircon, calcite and pyrite. The calcite seems to form in some cases a great part of the lapis; and the pyrite, which may occur in patches, is often altered to limonite.

Lapis lazuli usually occurs in crystalline limestone, and seems to be a product of contact metamorphism. It is recorded from Persia, Tartary, Tibet and China, but many of the localities are vague and some doubtful. The best known and probably the most important locality is in Badakshan. There it occurs in limestone, in the valley of the river Kokcha, a tributary to the Oxus, south of Firgamu. The mines were visited by Marco Polo in 1271, by J. B. Fraser in 1825, and by Captain John Wood in 1837–1838. The rock is split by aid of fire. Three varieties of the lapis lazuli are recognized by the miners: nili of indigo-blue colour, asmani sky-blue, and sabzi of green tint. Another locality for lapis lazuli is in Siberia near the western extremity of Lake Baikal, where it occurs in limestone at its contact with granite. Fine masses of lapis lazuli occur in the Andes, in the vicinity of Ovalle, Chile. In Europe lapis lazuli is found as a rarity in the peperino of Latium, near Rome, and in the ejected blocks of Monte Somma, Vesuvius.  (F. W. R.*) 

  1. The Med. Gr. λαζούριον, Med. Lat. lazurius or lazulus, as the names of this mineral substance, were adaptations of the Arab. al-lazward, Pers. lājward, blue colour, lapis lazuli. The same word appears in Med. Lat. as azura, whence O.F. azur, Eng. “azure,” blue, particularly used of that colour in heraldry (q.v.) and represented conventionally in black and white by horizontal lines.