I thought I’d spotted a crystal ball the other day while walking up the Museum’s stairs. As I entered the gallery to get an up-close view, I wondered if there would be the hologram of a fortune teller inside. Of course there wasn’t one because this was not Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. It was the recently opened exhibition TRUE BLUE—Indigo, Turquoise, Cobalt and Lapis Lazuli, and the “crystal ball” was a sizeable orb of lapis lazuli, made in Afghanistan in this century, the sole purpose of which is to delight the eye.
The name lapis lazuli was concocted from the Latin for stone (lapis) and the medieval Latin lazulum, derived from the Arabic word lāzuward (Persian lājvard), which means heaven, and heaven is the blue sky; hence the stone of heaven or the blue stone. This stone is made of various minerals, the most important of which is lazurite. Pyrite (gold), calcite (white) and sodalite (blue) are generally part of the mix, contributing to its heavenly aspect. Other minerals that may be present are augite, diopside, enstatite, mica, hauynite, hornblende, nosean and rarely geyerite. A fairly soft stone, lapis lazuli is listed at 5 to 6 on the Mohs scale of hardness, and is mined with a pickax. It’s smelly too. When cut, lapis lazuli releases an odor that indicates its quality to an experienced lapidary.
For at least 6,000 years, the highest quality lapis lazuli has been extracted from the Sar-e-Sang mine deposits in the Kokcha River valley of northeastern Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province. These mines supplied the ancient civilizations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East with lapis lazuli, and continue to supply it today. Smaller deposits exist in the Chilean Andes, near Siberia’s Lake Baikal and in Italy, Argentina, Burma (Myanmar), Pakistan, Canada and India. In the United States, it is found in California and Colorado. In different places different hues of blue are produced depending upon which minerals are present in that locale.
Known to the early Greeks as sapphire, lapis lazuli is almost universally regarded as a symbol of truth and friendship. Jewelry fashioned from this stone of heaven has been found in excavations at Pre-Dynastic Egyptian sites, while later Egyptians buried lapis lazuli scarabs, symbols of transformation, with their dead. Beginning with the Sumerians, the peoples of Mesopotamia have used the blue stone for seals and jewelry, some of the oldest of which have been found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, where it is believed there was flourishing trade in the stone around 4000 BCE. In its powdered form, it was Cleopatra’s eye shadow, and it is among the inlaid gems that adorn the Taj Mahal. Until 1834, when a chemical means of producing its intense blue was discovered, ground lapis lazuli was used as a pigment for tempera and oil paints and water colors. Shamans and healers through the ages have spoken of its healing properties.
Lapis lazuli is not the only gemstone in the exhibition. There is also a healthy assortment of turquoise jewelry. Like lapis lazuli, its hardness is 5 to 6 on the Mohs scale and it is an opaque substance capable of being polished. Although considered a gemstone, turquoise, unlike the stone lapis lazuli, is classified chemically as a secondary mineral. Occurring in cavities and rock fractures in arid regions around the world, it is a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. Colors range from white to sky blue and from blue-green to yellow-green depending upon the presence of other minerals such as limonite and silica in the deposit.
When turquoise arrived in Europe from Turkey, it was named for its place of origin, turquoise being the Old French for Turkish. It has some other names as well. Iranians call it pirouzeh, meaning victory,and Pliny the Elder called it callais, greenish blue in Latin, while to the Aztecs it was teoxihuitl, Nahuatl for fine turquoise.
Its most ancient source is the Sinai Peninsula where it’s been mined since Egypt’s First Dynasty (3000 BCE). Persia’s Khorasan Province has supplied the most prized turquoises — the kind that gave the name turquoise to the color turquoise, unless you call it pirouzeh, callais or teoxihuitl — for at least 2000 years. In the United States, it occurs in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. For 3000 years or more, turquoise has been produced in China, and it’s also found in Afghanistan, Australia, India, Chile, Cornwall, Saxony, Silesia and Turkestan (an old term for today’s five “Stans” of Central Asia).
Around the world, it is considered a holy stone, a talisman of good fortune. In the Persian Empire, it provided protection against unnatural death, but if it changed color, it was an omen of impending disease. Worn surrounded by pearls on a turban, the turquoise gave protection against the “evil eye.” The Apaches trusted it to give archers dead aim. Medieval Europeans believed that it quelled hatred, cured and prevented headaches, and, as in Persia, that a change of color was warning of ill health. Still a healing stone, today turquoise is prescribed in gem therapy for people with depression. Wearing this happy color is thought to inspire confidence. As a gift, it is a stone of friendship, a token of fidelity.
The ancients held turquoise in high regard. It adorned Egypt’s rulers for thousands of years. Tutankhamen’s famous death mask, inlaid with both turquoise and lapis lazuli, is probably the most famous example of their fondness for the stone. The Aztecs adorned their ceremonial masks with inlaid turquoise mosaics, and it was known to the Indus Valley civilization (3300-1300 BCE) and used by China’s Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). Exodus 28 specifies that a turquoise be placed in the second row of gems on Aaron’s priestly breastplate. Turquoise joins lapis lazuli as an inlay in the Taj Mahal and is set in gold and silver jewelry in Tibet and Mongolia.
The most highly valued turquoises are the light blue gems that come from Iran, and in the exhibition, there are two exquisite examples. You will also see a necklace of white and faded blue beads from the Sinai Peninsula and a headdress from the Ladakh culture of Jammu and Kashmir set with large, spider-webbed, oblong, strongly green-blue stones. The jewelry of the American Southwest comes in various colors from the prized light blue to almost yellow-green. Some of these Native American objects are composed only of stones, the traditional practice among Native Americans, before the1880s when traders introduced artists of the Southwest to the practice of setting turquoise in coin silver.
I have a long relationship with turquoise. It’s my birthstone, and I received my first piece of turquoise jewelry for my sixth birthday, a delicate ring featuring a Thunderbird. I am not, however, a delicate person, and I either squeezed that soft coin silver too many times or just plain burst the band as I grew up, so I put it away, intending to take it to a jeweler to be fixed. Decades have passed, and, as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve accumulated more and grander turquoise jewelry, but that little ring with its broken band still sits in a box in my jewelry drawer, a cherished and faithful friend.