“A certain blue penetrates your soul.”
Why is blue so compelling? As a color, as a state of mind, as an artifact, as symbolism—blue continues to captivate us today as never before. For jewelry designers, no poll or survey is needed, we just know—the blues of lapis lazuli and turquoise are beloved to both designer and customer.
But there have been polls and surveys. Many! And the results are clear. Decades of questionnaires by experts in the field have shown that blue is the most popular color.
This fervent love for the dreamy hue has transcended gender, generation, cultures, and remained “true blue” over millennia of time. For example, it’s hard to find a bluer blue than the ancient Ishtar Gate of Babylon. (circa 575 B.C.E.)
Blue is the color of Cleopatra’s favorite eye shadow, the color of Smurfs, and the color of dad’s work shirt. In wedding lore it is the “something blue” of fidelity and faithfulness; in politics it is the color of independence and freedom.
Even the famous Hope Diamond is actually blue.
“In US and European public opinion polls [blue] is the most popular colour, chosen by almost half of both men and women as their favourite colour.”wikipedia
As I researched this topic, I quickly realized that blue is much hotter than red! And the term “purple prose” came to mind, for it is difficult to describe a color so embedded in fashion, design, music, chemistry, physics, archaeology, ancient history, romantic lore, states of mind… without resorting to a few too many lavish adjectives.
So here are some quick stats:
In the ancient world, lapis lazuli was the the most beloved of stones.
The deep hues of lapis lazuli have been likened to both sea and sky, and it is a stone with the longest history of enchantment. The enigmatic poem–The Descent of Inanna–is some four thousand years old. Whomever Inanna, aka Ishtar, actually represented in the ancient world, she must have been one fierce woman you wouldn’t want to tangle with! Still, when she had a job to do, she put on her jewels “of ladyship“, the stones of lapis lazuli.
Radiance she placed upon her countenance,
The . . . rod of lapis lazuli she gripped in (her) hand,
Small lapis lazuli stones she tied about her neck,
Sparkling stones she fastened to her breast
All the garments of ladyship she arranged about her bodyThe Descent of Innanna, ancient Mesopotamian poem
A thousand or so years later after this remarkable epic poem was written, the ancient Egyptians still loved blue so much that they devised a way to create a pigment. It is simply called Egyptian Blue, created circa 2500 BCE, and thought to be the first pigment ever made. The color has survived not only the kiln but then the subsequent thousands of years of lying around in dusty tombs!
Why would they make what they called “artificial lapis lazuli”?
‘The ancient Egyptians held the color blue in very high regard and were eager to present it on many media and in a variety of forms. They also desired to imitate the semiprecious stones turquoise and lapis lazuli, which were valued for their rarity and stark blue color. Use of naturally occurring minerals, such as azurite, to acquire this blue, was impractical, as these minerals were rare and difficult to work. Therefore, to have access to the large quantities of blue color to meet demand, the Egyptians needed to manufacture the pigment themselves.’wiki
The first blue pigment ever made is thousands of years old; the brilliant invention was created by the Egyptians; it is a lovely greenish blue. This ancient hippo (left) shows the unique shade, as well as the durability of this colorful glaze. Items such as this hippo were buried with the honored dead.
The technique the Egyptians used for creating this stable color pigment has been lost.
How did blue go from being the color of an elite few–the monarchy, the rich, and the revered dead–to being a color synonymous with the working man, and the subsequent association with terms like “blue collar”? By the eighteenth century blue had become the color of freedom, and the uniform of protest for those wanting to throw off the yoke of the monarchy. The road to liberty was most often paved by workers in blue uniforms, waving blue flags.
Levi Strauss, and his iconic denim blue work pants, entered the picture about 1873. And while we love our faded denim blues, we don’t love it when our blue jewelry fades! Can a rock really fade? The answer is yes!
Jewelry designers of today who work on a tight budget are well familiar with the manufactured kinds of turquoise. Dyed howlite or magnesite are color treated, and those colors can fade. Lapis lazuli and turquoise–if they are the real deal– should not fade, but other natural blues are not so permanent. (see below, and here)
Lapis lazuli is so color stable, in fact, that it has been ground and used to create color pigments in medieval times. Jewelry designers of today may shudder to think of grinding up their precious lapis lazuli beads, but this technique resulted in some of our favorite paintings of history.
“Jewelry designers of today may shudder to think of grinding up their precious lapis lazuli beads….”
Ultramarine blue—a pigment made from this powdered lapis lazuli— was the finest and most expensive paint used by Renaissance painters. For the medieval artists, this blue symbolized holiness and humility and was reserved solely for sacred subjects, such as the robes of the Virgin Mary. Interestingly, Michelangelo couldn’t afford this blue paint, with the result that some of his work went unfinished. When he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, the Pope willingly funded his work so obtaining that precious blue was no obstacle.
“Ultramarine blue is a glorious, lovely and absolutely perfect pigment beyond all the pigments. It would not be possible to say anything about or do anything to it which would not make it more so.”Cennino Cennini, 15th century artist
The artist Johannes Vermeer, on the other hand, must have had a wealthy patron, for he used this precious pigment of blue on subjects other than the sacred. The famous “Girl With the Pearl Earring” should, perhaps, have been named “Girl With the Blue Turban”, for the presence of this expensive lapis lazuli pigment has been found to have been used in rendering the delicate blue of her scarf, making the potential symbolism of the painting even more mysterious.
In the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli could only be found in what is now Afghanistan. By the time the powdered stone reached central Europe through a complex trade network spanning thousands of miles, study co-author Beach says, it was worth more than its weight in gold. The vivid blue lapis pigment produced was so precious medieval artists and manuscript illuminators reserved it for the most important subjects.National Geographic
(For an extra tidbit on this topic of ultramarine, see below, where there is a link to a video of how this expensive pigment was produced.)
What is your favorite blue gemstone to design with, or wear? What is your favorite shade of blue? Perhaps you might find it here, in this chart of various blues. I’d have to say Tiffany Blue, from the chart, is a personal favorite. And I haven’t even begun to discuss another one of my favorites–cobalt blue–but that will be left for a different article.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion of blue!