The pearl is my birthstone. I have always been proud of its history, of its oblique beginnings at the bottom of the sea. I have always been proud of its fame: of La Peregrina (“priceless and incomparable in this world”), La Huerfana, Hope, Arco Valley. They’ve done time hanging from the necks of royalty, aristocrats, and criminals. I’ve seen the pearl featured in paintings: resting against the trussed chests of Isabella of Portugal
and Mary I;
hanging from a young woman’s ear in astral splendor in “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”.
Pearls symbolize innocence and decorate the veils of brides; yet they also decorate the chariot of Neptune, raw and swarthy. Pearls have traditionally symbolized the tear drops of the moon: a delightful thought.
On the other hand, I’ve always had pity for the lapis lazuli birthstone. The name is unwieldy and unpronounceable. Uncomfortably foreign, I was never even sure of its color. It is the birthstone of December, and I have since learned that it isn’t even its primary gem – losing to the turquoise and blue topaz in an azure competition. I knew nothing of its meaning, its worth, its use.
But I know now, and I am somewhat ashamed to have held such a noble stone in contempt for so many years.
First, there is the look of it. Its color is a rich, royal blue; it sparkles with pyrite, giving it a look of a twilight sky dazzled with golden stars. Its color was of such intense opulence and rarity, it was mined as far back as the 7th millennium BC to be used as the finest jewelry. Minutely carved scarabs and beads have been found in Neolithic burials in the Caucasus and Mauritania. The Babylonians and Assyrians used it for jewelry as well, for amulets and cylinder seals, the small engraved cylinders used to roll impressions onto clay. Invented around 3500 BC, they have been found in gravesites, to provide good fortune for the dead.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 17th-18th century BC, is recognized as one of the oldest known works of literature. Many times lapis lazuli is mentioned, the first time, many agree, a precious stone has appeared in a narrative:
From the prologue:
“Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travels of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…”
Ishtar beseeches Gilgamesh:
“Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.
I will have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold”
Gilgamesh declares in “The Flood Myth”:
“Ye gods, as surely as I shall not forget this lapis lazuli [amulet] around my neck, I shall be mindful of these days and never forget them!”
It was saved for the most exclusive of adornments. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra. It was used to embellish the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.
Royal and priestly garments were shamelessly dyed with the mystic blue in order to designate their status as gods. Catherine the Great used lapis lazuli to decorate The Lyons Hall of the Catherine Palace, saturating ceiling and furniture with impenetrable majesty.
By the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was being ground into the most valuable of all blue pigments, ultramarine “the most perfect of all colors”. It found its way into lush Baroque skies, Renaissance frescoes; it was an exalted color, used for Annunciations and the Virgin’s cloak. It was even used to color the turban the young woman wore, as thick with light as her celestial earring.
So in history, art and literature the lofty excellence of lapis lazuli has played a significant part. But its fame does not stop there; it has one more role to play: the leading one, the force that drives the tangled mythos of alchemy.
Lapis is the Latin word for “stone”. And every transmutation, equation, calculation and alteration that burns in the alchemical retort is for one purpose: to purify the “dark matter” the earthy “chaos” that had putrefied the four elements since the fall of Adam and to elevate them once more towards the celestial belt, the Elysian “lapis”.
It is the “lapis philosophorum”, the Philosopher’s Stone, the sun and moon tree, the Treasure-house of Wisdom “from there that wisdom rises” (Umail at-Tamimi, 10th century), and described by Hermes Trismegistus in The Emerald Tablet: “the father of it is the Sun, the mother of it is the Moon; the wind carries it in its belly; the nurse thereof is the Earth”.
Now, it is true that the surname of ‘Lazuli’ does not appear in these obscure teachings, but the lapis lazuli is universally known to represent truth, enlightenment and inner vision – perhaps a nod and a wink to the twisted logic and bizarre mathematics of its alchemic ancestry.
In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare wrote the words, ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’. They were spoken by the magician Prospero, as he reflected on the similarity between the spiritual and the corporeal, the confrontation between the dreaming and waking states. In very different circumstances, a rumpled cynic contemplated the statue of a dark falcon, naming its strange appeal as ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ – the futility, the greed, the desperation, the hopeless competitive spirit that keeps people reaching for what they can never grasp.
But I still insist that the stuff of dreams are buried in the earth, that they are swimming beneath the waves. They have complexities of color and shape; they shine in the darkness. And they were born out of the most extraordinary circumstances: from the irritation of a grain of sand to the formative power of sediment, rivers and volcanoes.
But it was the caprice of humanity which gave the gemstones added meaning and value – long after they were pulled out of their earthly homes. But we can’t help it. We will always dream.