Lapis lazuli is one of the oldest gemstones ever to feature in jewellery designs, and yet, thanks to its brilliant colour and smooth polish, it is as covetable today as it was thousands of years ago. These days the name is often abbreviated to “lapis”, Latin for “stone”. “Lazuli” is said to come from the Persian name for where the semi-precious stone was found.

The gem’s signature vivid blue is thanks to the main mineral composition, lazurite, while the glittering golden flecks seen in the stone (and one of the reasons it works so beautifully in jewellery) are not gold at all but pyrite, a brassy looking mineral which carries the nickname “fool’s gold”. This shimmering presence of iron-rich pyrite and flecks of white calcite would have helped convince the ancient Sumerians that lapis lazuli was the tangible incarnation of their much-worshipped night sky.

These natural properties of the stone have entranced people for millennia, and lapis has long been associated with prestige and wealth, royalty and deity. It is also a symbol of wisdom and thought to promote nurturing and harmony. It featured widely in ancient Egyptian objects, even famously appearing as the eyebrows of Tutankhamun’s funerary mask. Lapis beads can be seen in gold jewellery such as this 1st-4th Century Roman earring, now part of the extraordinary collection of historic jewels in London’s V&A Museum. These Cylinder seals sold by Christie’s, were used by the ancient Sumerians to imprint onto clay, and were also worn around the neck as a status symbol – much like a modern-day designer pen.

Aside from the stone’s own symbolism, the colour blue has always represented the spiritual and divine. And no shade of blue is more awe-inspiring than that naturally occurring in lazurite. Incredibly, the colour was so coveted by pre-19th-century artists that they would pulverise the gemstone and use it to produce natural ultramarine blue paint for their most precious artworks. The most famous artist to use this exceptionally expensive paint was Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. You can see an example of the hue in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (c.1660) or A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (c.1670).

Lapis is quite a soft stone, measuring only 5-6 on the Mohs hardness scale (making it softer than even moonstone). For this reason, it’s a great stone for carving and polishes up beautifully – making it the perfect candidate for a cabochon cut. It also means it’s important to store your lapis jewellery carefully – in its own box away from sunlight to avoid scratching or dulling the stone.

Lapis is the starring feature of NAJO’s latest 30 Year Anniversary Collection of jewellery designs, available exclusively in our partner retail stores.