An eclectic blog about beads, beading and beyond

Monday, September 28, 2009

Victory blue, Lapis Lazuli, the beauty and the beast!

Blue is everywhere around me this week. Ruthie (from the Etsy Beadweaver’s Team) has featured blue work by the EBW team on her blog. Do drop by and have a look. There are some beautiful pieces. Just as Ruthie blogged on blue, I was busy organising my own blue beadwork feature called ‘Blue note’ for the local market that I sell my beadwork at. It drew lots of interest – see what you think of it. Blue is also everywhere around me because shops, cars and people are adorned with the blue and white colours of the local Australian Rules football team (Geelong – aka ‘The Cats’) who won the Grand Final here in Australia on Saturday. The victory blue of the ‘The Cats’ and my ‘Blue note’ display each echo the deep blue tones of the gemstone Lapis Lazuli. I recently bought several lovely large cabochons of lapis lazuli during a trip to Thailand and I’ve been looking forward to creating something wonderful with them. Maybe this will prompt some action.

The deep blue stone of lapis lazuli often includes specs of golden-colored pyrites that make it seem like the stone is sprinkled with gold dust. Whilst, pyrite is often referred to as ‘fool’s gold’, in the 1970s the finest grades of Afghan lapis lazuli with their ‘gold dust’ cost more than gold did on the world’s gemstone markets. Perhaps that should not be surprising given that this lovely deep blue gemstone has been precious enough to adorn the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen's burial mask, to be worn ground up as eye shadow by Cleopatra and to decorate palaces and other grand buildings around the world (e.g. the columns of St. Issac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg and the panelling in the Pushkin Palace (Russia)). Lapis Lazuli has also been used to create jewellery, pottery and to produce the ultramarine pigment in the vivid blues in Renaissance paintings and illuminated manuscripts.

A majority of the lapis lazuli used historically and sold now has begun its life as blue rock in the northeast mountains of Afghanistan where it has been mined since ancient Egyptian times. Afghanistan has some of the richest deposits of lapis lazuli in the world so it’s not surprising that it produces the highest-grade and most beautiful lapis lazuli in the world. However, little beauty surrounds the journey of this blue rock to the world’s gemstone markets. There is a recent and very powerful video-clip on U-tube (see link below) of just how appalling the conditions are for workers in the mines in the rugged northeast of Afghanistan. Mines are at 8000 feet above sea level and can only be accessed on foot or via horseback on very steep and unstable tracks. Miners work underground in totally unregulated conditions with no regular pay for their work. Often they are paid only if they find stone and then they are paid a fraction of what a stone is sold for in the gemstone markets. Amongst this, raids by armed bandits and smugglers are commonplace. Nearly 25% of the costs associated with uncut gemstones are for bribes to police and bandits to ensure the rock’s safe passage south to the lapis lazuli exchange in Kabul. Recently, the armed conflict associated with lapis lazuli mining in the northern provinces Pakistan and Afghanistan became more complex when the Taliban took control of lapis lazuli mines in the Swat Valley (north-west Pakistan bordering the north east of Afghanistan) and nearly 10 tonnes of high grade lapis lazuli recently disappeared mysteriously from the vaults of the old presidential palace in Kabul (Afghanistan) during a period of armed conflict in the capital. Lapis lazuli’s association with smuggling, armed conflict, danger and violence seem destined to continue despite efforts by new Afghanistan government to ensure only legally mined and traded rocks reach the world’s gemstone markets. In 2007 they established a gemstone exchange in Kabul where for the first time in over 50 years Afghanistan lapis lazuli was legally traded. That is a small victory for those in Afghanistan whose life is linked to the beautiful blue gemstone.

So, as I look at my beautiful blue gold-dusted cabochons I wonder how their journey began, were they legally traded and what bribes and dangers have been part of their life? Would I have bought them if I had known their history? It’s hard to reconcile the beauty of those gemstones with their potentially beastly history of exploitation and corruption. Those who see spiritual power in gemstones say that wearing it encourages self-awareness and brings qualities of honesty, compassion and morality to the wearer. It assists those who wear it to confront and speak one’s truth. Learning a little about the journey of lapis lazuli from mountain to me I have had to confront some new truths that suggest a beast behind its beauty. Those truths make me determined to use my cabachons with care and to try to find out more about how to make ethical gemstone purchases. I’d welcome thoughts from others on how to do this? How do we bring victories to those who risk so much to bring us the beautiful blue of lapis lazuli?

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Marsha Wiest-Hines said...

Fun info on Lapis! I just visited a local Gem and Lapidary workers show and bought some Lapis cylinder beads that I would say are the size of a 15 bead. Gives me new appreciation for them!

Rose Works Jewelry said...

I love all the research you put into this post! And I think it's kinda funny that blue is surrounding you so much right now! That's really sad about the workers being exploited :(

BeadsForever said...

Mmmmm. Blue is my favorite color! Interesting info on lapis.

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