Lapis Lazuli is the name of an mineral that used to be found almost exclusively in a remote region of Afghanistan. Apart from plant based dyes such as indigo, the earliest, true blue has been made out of powdered lapis lazuli. This particular pigment was so valuable that artists' contracts often required their patrons to pay for the cost of supplying it.
The colour blue is so popular and common now that it is hard to imagine how rare and expensive the colour once was.
Until the late 18th century, the only source of this mineral in Europe, Asia and Africa was a valley called Sar-e-Sand in the Badakhshan mountains in the northeast Afghanistan. It has been mined there for more than 6 millennia. Lapis lazuli was used by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians for jewelery and amulets making. Its supposed magic aura was used as a defense against the evil eye. Its diffusion in Europe began during the Crusades (a series of military campaigns during the time of Medieval England against the Muslims of the Middle East). However, its cost and rarity meant that it could only be afforded for the creation of art works only for the richest of patrons.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, ground lapis lazuli was increasingly used by painters to make the colour ultramarine. However it was not until the second half of the 16th century that large objects carved from the mineral began to appear in Italy. The first centre of production was in Milan, where the Miseroni brothers (Gasparo and Girolamo) became famous for their mastery of working with the challenging mineral.
For hundreds of years the price of the good quality lapis lazuli was stable, and an ounce of lapis typically cost around the same as an ounce of gold. Even when new sources of stone were found in Siberia and Chile, the purest product remain extremely costly.
In the 19th century, prizes were offered for the discovery of a cheaper, synthetic substitute of lapis lazuli. This has been achieved by the French chemist Jean-Baptist Guimet in the mid 1820s, although the colour was not as deep a blue.