“Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colors are not…. All colors arouse specific associative ideas…while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.” —Yves Klein
Whether evoking visions of nature, purity, or calm, the color blue has held symbolic meaning in many cultures for thousands of years. Before the invention of synthetic pigments, artists relied on minerals borrowed from nature to depict a clear morning sky or the robes of the Virgin Mary. Here, we present the stories behind three of the most valued sources of blue pigment from history, along with our brand-new spring products in shades of lapis, turquoise, and cobalt. Shop them online by clicking here.
Revered for its intense royal blue color, lapis lazuli has been a prized material for artists and jewelers for thousands of years. Until the 18th century, the only known source of lapis was in the mountains of Afghanistan. Still known as the source of the finest lapis in the world after nearly 6,000 years since lapis mining began there, the remote location of the mines contributed to a staggeringly high price tag. Valued at a cost equal to that of gold for much of history, art objects featuring lapis were reserved for the elite.
In ancient Egypt and Babylon, the stone was known for its mystical powers, and was incorporated into jewelry and personal amulets for the purpose of warding off evil spirits. Given its high material value, lapis was typically reserved for small personal objects with a spiritual purpose. Notably, lapis was used to adorn the funeral mask of Tutankhamun, now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Lapis first spread to Europe during the Crusades. By the 12th century, ultramarine paint (made from lapis lazuli pigment) became a popular color for the robes of the Virgin Mary. Using ultramarine allowed patrons of religious art to show off their wealth and power, and by extension, their religious devotion. Furthermore, the color blue had no pagan associations, and so it was ripe for religious appropriation. Despite its early spread to Europe, lapis did not travel to Italy until the 16th century, when wealthy patrons like the Medici began commissioning paintings, furniture, and other objects featuring lapis inlay or paint as a show of their wealth and prowess.
By the 19th century, synthetic imitations of lapis became available, though genuine lapis continued to be preferred for jewelry making.
Associated with good health, good fortune, and protection from evil, turquoise has been used in art making since ancient Egypt and China nearly 3,000 years ago. Unlike lapis, rich deposits of turquoise are found around the world in locations that include Iran, Egypt, China, and the Americas, making it accessible to a diverse range of cultures.
Despite its value in areas where turquoise was naturally plentiful, the stone did not gain prominence in Europe until sometime in the 14th century. Likely introduced via the Silk Road, the first European source of the stone was Turkey, which gives turquoise the name by which it is now known. It is derived from the French pierre tourques, or “Turkish stone.” Turquoise held many regional names before the 14th century, including the ancient Egyptian mefkat, meaning “joy” and “delight.”
Adding to this concept of mefkat, turquoise was widely considered in non-Western culture to be a holy stone, bringing good fortune or guiding wearers of turquoise jewelry or amulets toward success in areas like hunting or the afterlife. Changes in color (now known to take place in response to light, dust, or acidity) were thought to indicate impending illness or doom.
Once turquoise arrived in Europe, it was immediately prized for its softness and extremely fine texture, which allowed for detailed carving or polishing into smooth beads or cabochon stones for jewelry or inlay. At this time, its introduction to Europe coincided with a rise in popularity of secular jewelry.
Natural cobalt deposits are primarily located in Persia, and its earliest-known use is in the glaze for Islamic ceramics. An especially potent pigment, an incredibly small amount of cobalt can produce a rich shade of blue in glass, ceramic glazes, or paint, making it an efficient way to create a dramatic visual effect.
By the late 8th or early 9th century, small amounts of cobalt are known to have traveled as far as China, as evidenced by pot shards recently discovered by archaeologists. However, it wasn’t until the 14th century, when raw cobalt began to be exported from Persia, that the use of the pigment rose to prominence. A key development in Chinese ceramics, blue-and-white designs exploded in popularity during this time.
Produced at Jingdezhen, sometimes known as the porcelain capital of China, cobalt, when paired with the fine quality of local Chinese porcelain, allowed for the birth of a new artistic tradition. Prized worldwide, blue-and-white ceramics were traded around the globe and were later imitated by European artisans, with one of the earliest examples being Delftware.
In European painting, cobalt is a common substitute for ultramarine blue due to its comparable vibrancy, lower cost, and extreme potency. Notably, cobalt pigments were used by painters such as Turner, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh.