Years ago, in about 5th grade, I wrote a school report about Afghanistan. This was before the Soviets invaded in 1979, before the Taliban, and before the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Although these recent events are not the only instances in a history of political strife, my report was more about cultural aspects.
I was reminded of that long-ago report this weekend when I attended the Gem Faire at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego. There were some beautiful examples of lapis lazuli, a beautiful stone of vibrant blue, that has been mined in the northeast area of Afghanistan for over 6,000 years. Not only is it beautiful, but the name, lapis lazuli, sounds so cool that it stuck in my mind for years after writing that report.
As a relatively soft stone, historically it has been used not only for jewelry, but also for small carved statues and vessels such as bowls. And at some point, someone discovered that you could crush the stone and use the dust as pigment. Egyptian ladies used this pigment to create blue eye shadow.
And during the medieval and renaissance periods, this pigment was used to create a blue paint, ultramarine, that didn’t fade. Michelangelo used it in his frescoes at the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, it was extraordinarily expensive, on par with the price of gold.
Because of the expense, there was actually a reward offered to chemists to find a way to create synthetic ultramarine. In the early nineteenth century, French chemist Jean-Baptist Guimet created a synthetic version that was about one tenth of the cost of the lapis lazuli version.
Six thousand years of beauty from one stone. Isn’t our planet amazing!