Lapis Lazuli—The Blue Gem of the Andes
By Awake! correspondent in Chile
DIAMONDS, emeralds, rubies, sapphires—these spectacular gems are well-known to all of us. But have you ever heard of lapis lazuli? Though the name may seem strange, it simply means a blue (lazuli, from Arabic) stone (lapis, from Latin). Because of the intense, deep-blue color, often speckled with shiny spots of golden pyrite, it has been likened to the night sky studded with twinkling stars.
A Long History
The beauty of lapis lazuli was first reported to the Western world by Marco Polo in 1271. But the gem had been in use in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt long before that. For example, a Sumerian necklace made of this stone was unearthed among the ruins of Ur. On Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s golden death mask, the eyes and eyebrows are made of lapis lazuli. The ancient Egyptians also ground this blue stone into powder and used it as pigment in paintings and eye shadow. In China royal seals and carvings of many kinds were made of this stone.
In the past, lapis lazuli was mined mainly in Afghanistan and in Siberia near Lake Baikal. In recent years, however, Chile has become the principal supplier of this beautiful stone. If you should visit Chile, you will see the name in many souvenir shops and elegant jewelry stores. But why not take a trip to see where most of the supply of this stone comes from?
To a Mine in the Andes
One of the principal mines can only be reached by mules following a narrow and treacherous trail that winds its way up to the arid and desolate retreat of the condors, 11,800 feet [3,600 m] above sea level.
At this elevation, headache and dizziness may plague a newcomer. The ground is covered with snow about seven months out of the year. Thus, during the short summer, the pressure is on to get out of the open-pit mine the greatest amount of raw material possible. The workday is long, and the working conditions harsh. The equipment, by today’s standards, is primitive—picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and a drill for placing dynamite. The backbreaking work requires physical strength and endurance.
As the day ends, the sound of explosions and the clangs of picks and shovels die. The silence of the night is immense. One hears only the howling of the wind in the canyon and the rumble of falling rocks in the distance. But it makes little difference to the exhausted workers. They fall asleep quickly under the starry skies.
With no modern transportation available, muleteers play an important role. With their knowledge of these rugged mountains and winding paths, they guide their surefooted animals, loaded with sacks of selected stones, to the valley below. From there the stones are shipped to Santiago or they are exported. In this way about 20 tons a year are mined and made available to artisans and jewelers around the world.
A Visit With an Artisan
Artisans in Chile turn from 30 to 40 percent of the stones they receive from the mines into beautiful earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. The highest quality stones are set in gold and are exported. Second highest quality pieces are used for jewelry set in silver, and lower quality stones are turned into imaginative figurines, such as elephants, lions, or turtles, into handles for letter openers, and even into small tabletops.
Don José is a talented artisan. Even though we interrupted his siesta when we dropped in on him, he gave us a warm welcome and showed us his taller (workshop) on the patio.
“How about a demonstration, Don José?” we asked.
First a large stone weighing five or six pounds [2 or 3 kg] must be cut with a circular diamond wheel or saw. He explained that el artesano must know his stone and have a good eye in order to make a precise cut to eliminate the white veins while preserving the maximum amount of good quality stone.
“Why do you wet the stone?” someone asked.
“To provide a greater contrast between the white veins and the lapis I want to preserve,” responded our amicable artesano as he cut the stone into a number of smaller pieces.
He then showed us the next step. With a smaller circular wheel, he shaped the smaller stones to the forms he wanted. With expert dexterity he rapidly formed the pieces into beads, half moons for earrings, and cabochons (rounded, or convex pieces).
Next, he cleaned and polished the pieces with a circular, synthetic brush. Then, with a dab of paste, he burnished them to a high luster. Now they are ready to be set in a ring or arranged on a chain for a necklace. The final touch is a shampoo and warm-water rinse with the use of a toothbrush. In fact, Don José recommended this last process for maintaining the beauty of lapis lazuli jewelry.
Yes, in the hands of skillful and talented artisans like Don José, the riches of the earth can be turned into works of art that bring pleasure and joy to those who see or use them. Lapis lazuli, the beautiful blue rock found high up in the Andes Mountains, is but one of many such riches provided by our loving Creator for our enjoyment and delight.