Ancient stone lapis back in fashion with world's jewellers
Lapis is a material so ancient its name simply means "stone". In antiquity, lapis was the most valuable gemstone of all, prized for its scarcity as much as its looks.
"Whole economies were built around it," says Aja Raden, author of Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World. Also called lapis lazuli, or "blue stone", this hot property has been found in Neolithic graves and strikingly rims the eyes of King Tut's golden death mask.
The love for lapis hasn't dulled a bit, and today jewellery designers such as Aurelie Bidermann, Fernando Jorge, Pamela Love, Siobhan Way and Brooke Garber Neidich of the Chicago-based Sidney Garber Fine Jewelry company are gravitating to the material for its standout colour.
"The rich deep blue and gold flecks have made it one of the most sought-after stones," says Neidich, who recently collaborated with London-based fashion designer Duro Olowu on a lapis jewellery collection, available in the Sidney Garber store on New York's Madison Avenue. The pair fixed on lapis to complement the palette of Olowu's boldly patterned women's clothing. "Offsetting gold with a luminous stone like lapis allowed us to create our statement pieces," says Olowu.
This season, lapis also shows up in chunky rings and sculpted pendants, delicate earrings, thin bangles and even on Hermes watch faces. These pieces really pop on the season's neutral-toned minimalist tops and are gutsy enough to avoid being overwhelmed by colourful pattern-blocked dresses.
Traditionally lapis was not just a precious object but a holy one. "Just as the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun," Raden says, "the ancient Sumerians worshipped the night sky", for which the lazurite-rich blue stone flecked with yellowy pyrite — often known as "fool's gold" — was a natural stand-in. Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love, traditionally wore a massive lapis necklace; the blue stone is also associated with Cleopatra, who may have identified with the shade's seductiveness.
Aurelie Bidermann took inspiration from ancient Egypt for her delicately engraved scarab beetle pendant; in Egyptian mythology, the scarab represented immortality, she says.
Bidermann's over-size cocktail ring nestles a square lapis stone in a shiny golden coil. Each ring is slightly different, reflecting the stone's idiosyncrasies. "Imperfect stones have more character," Bidermann says. "Every stone tells its own story."
Jewellery designers welcome the challenge of modernising this age-old material, and it's not just women who benefit from what Perth-based jeweller Siobhan Way calls its "rich celestial blue with a history of deep spiritual and royal significance".
Way's Lithos collection features lapis in round faceted cufflinks with an off-centre point, and she uses the stone "to reference the colour of the night sky. Flecked with golden pyrite it is its own constellation. It's the perfect masculine blue but equally elegant when worn by a woman," she says.
"While it is referenced as a traditional gemstone, it lends itself to be used in a modern way, it is easy to cut and the rough comes in large pieces so you can really have fun with it.
"I am working on a bespoke women's piece at the moment with large angular facets of blue which contrast so beautifully against pink gold. Modern and elegant …"
And sophisticated enough for modern-day gods and goddesses.
Additional reporting by Glynis Traill-Nash