The Afghan lapis
Egyptian queen Cleopatra used it as eyeshadow while Mesopotamian kings flaunted it on their wrists and Greek senators adorned their necks with it. It is part of the Taj Mahal and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Russia. Across ages, the striking blue lapis, or lapis lazuli, has remained one of the most sought-after gemstones. Renaissance masters would grind lapis to get the shining ultramarine hue for painting, while healers and village doctors would mix it with milk for medicinal purposes and to keep the evil eye away.
Lapis—which means “rock” in Latin—remained popular in jewellery, design, architecture, make-up, even funeral masks. It continues to be hot property even today—from fine jewellery designers to high-end luxury brands who embrace this semi-precious, opaque stone for its standout colour.
“The love for lapis hasn’t dropped a bit,” says Tarang Arora, chief executive officer of Indian jewellery house Amrapali, which launched Aayenda Jewellery, a lazuli-encrusted line, at its Khan Market store in Delhi recently. Aayenda boasts more than 130 styles—earrings, bracelets, pendants, rings and necklaces—in gold-plated silver and base metals, with fine lapis beads used intricately to produce colourful pieces.
The launch was in collaboration with Future Brilliance, a non-profit established by London-based social entrepreneur Sophia Swire. It works towards providing entrepreneurship, technical and business skills to people in war-torn Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is the biggest producer of lapis lazuli (Pakistan, Chile, the US and the UK are others), so it was an obvious decision to use this stone,” says Swire.
“The ultramarine hue comes from the lazuli in lapis,” explains Yasir Sultan, co-owner of Chennai’s Sultan Gems and Fine Jewellery. The lapis rock is a composition of three minerals: lazelite, calcite and pyrite. The more the lazelite, the bluer the stone. “Lapis has been mined since antiquity. In fact, there was a time when it was valued more than gold. It was so precious that illustrators used it almost exclusively for painting the Virgin’s robe,” he says.
What makes the Aayenda Jewellery line special are its makers—over 30 Afghan women who participated in a six-month skill-enhancement programme at Jaipur in 2013. “They worked with three international designers who helped them with designing jewellery, craftsmanship and gem cutting at the (Indian) Institute of Gems and Jewellery in Jaipur,” says Swire, who has been instrumental in reviving the 3,000-year-old Afghan tradition of hand-carving micro-sized lapis beads, using diamond tipped needles and pomegranate twigs. The aim of this initiative is to help women, most of them war widows, to set up their own business and impart their jewellery-making knowledge to other people as well.
The Aayenda line (prices range between Rs.800 and Rs.34,000) has a strong Western influence, something which Swire believes was essential. “The idea was to ensure that the Western influence complements traditional elements and not overpower them. The essence, of course, lies in the beauty of the beads,” she says.
While this was Aayenda’s first exhibition in India, it has been travelling across the world with stops at London Fashion Week in 2013 as well as New York’s NOW exhibition in the US. It is stocked by 40 leading jewellery retailers internationally, including Donna Karan’s iconic store in New York.
“Besides the exquisite colour, it is the stone’s affordability (around Rs.5,000 a carat) that makes it so popular. It is also used as a birthstone; some people believe it brings positive energy, new ideas and is a source of wisdom,” says Sultan.
In a world where replacing old with new remains the flavour of fashion seasons, it is comforting to see a love affair with the semi-precious lapis lazuli last.