As a history student, I spend some time in Egypt to help excavate recently discovered tombs of the Pharaohs in Luxor (Valley of the Kings). Hard job! I had to drive by donkey every day from Luxor to the excavation site and back. My most important job there is… dusting stones. Right, old stones but still stones.

What comes out of all that dust are beautiful paintings of the people who are buried in that particular grave. The colors are exceptional, even after so many years. One of my professors told me the story of Cleopatra and showed me that lapis lazuli is the most expensive eye shadow in the world.

Egyptian lady with make-up

Here is his story.

We talk about the ancient Egyptians who live 5000 years ago. They live partly in the desert and partly near the Nile. The sun is bright and the sand of the Sahara very hot. And sunglasses are not invented yet.

Those clever Egyptians discover that when you use thick eye paint around your eyes it helps the eyes to cope with the bright afternoon sunlight. They use a thick paste made of malachite, a darker green gemstone. I see this before me… all those Egyptians with dark green eye shadows, even for the men.

To lapis lazuli necklace

As a woman, you need a little variation…

In the first century, BC Cleopatra comes into power and she claims that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. That is a matter of taste. But she is definitely the most powerful woman and the richest girl in the region of the Middle East.

For instance, she pulverizes a very very expensive pearl in a glass of wine, just to win a bet with her lover Marc Anthony. Anyway, this Pharaoh Cleopatra can afford a lot of high priced jewelry, clothing, and palaces and does not mind to spend a fortune on make-up.

She uses a paste of malachite green for her lower eyelids. And a deep blue eye shadow with gold-colored flecks (pyrite), made of lapis lazuli to use on her upper eyelids. This is a bit beside the subject but as a lipstick, she uses a red-colored clay that gets its color from iron oxide. And her eyebrows are colored with a paste made of lead sulfide and fat of animals. I don’t think this is healthy and proved by the Health Inspection. Well, beauty has its price and at the time the people die early.

A costly eye shadow made of lapis lazuli

In another blog post, I explain why lapis lazuli is so expensive. Expensive now but also in those days. Imagine… nowadays 1 kilo or 2.2 pounds lapis lazuli cost about €250 or $270. And that is not all, because you cannot use solid lapis lazuli on your eyes. You have to pulverize it and you lose a lot of material in the process. From one-kilo solid gemstone, you get about 20-30 grams of eye shadow. Have a look at this video on how this works out.

Other options for pulverized lapis lazuli

In the 6th and 7th century Afghan people made murals in caves close by the mine where they find the lapis lazuli. In China, you find murals painted with lapis lazuli from the 10th and 11th centuries. India follows from the 11th century.

The lapis lazuli begins to turn up in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. It is not so much used as a gemstone, but the pigment, called ‘ultramarine’ or ‘from the other side of the sea’ becomes popular as a pigment. The ships with the gem arrive in Venice and the artists there recognize the possibilities of gemstone and use it in the paint to make a special shade of blue.

They use blue to paint the clothing of important people in the painting, like the Virgin Mary. But we see the ultramarine paint also in Medieval books, made by hand, and then especially the first character of the chapter that looks like a kind of mini-painting. Nuns, scribes, and monks work with the ultramarine. We know that for sure since we find ultramarine in the dental tartar of their skeletons. No toothbrush and a lot of cleaning their fingers with their mouth, I suppose.

Miniature in Medieval book painted with ultramarine

The famous Dutch painters use lapis lazuli paint.

In the Renaissance famous Dutch painters, like Vermeer (the Milkmaid) and Rembrandt used the ultramarine. In those days this blue paint is very expensive. Luckily, they work in order and can calculate the costs in the price.

The trip from Afghanistan to Europe and the process to make from lapis lazuli the pigment ultramarine make it so expensive. There is a source that says that Albrecht Dürer pays in 1521 twelve golden ducats for 100 grams ultramarine, about $1800 now.

the milk maid of Vermeer

Ultramarine pigment

The pigment is made in Venice in those days and for example, the Dutch painter Vermeer buys this material at a pharmacist. It is a very difficult process and it costs time and so money. Therefore it is so exceptional that Vermeer uses so much ultramarine in his painting ‘the Milkmaid’). Not only for the parts that have to be blue according to the artist, but also in the skirt of the girl and the table cloth. And it is even more exceptional because at the time ultramarine is mostly used for religious figures.

In the 16th and 17th century on one way or the other, the supply of lapis lazuli stops, and the pigment ultramarine becomes more expensive than the price of gold.

In 1828 a cheaper option comes on the market. The French man Guimet invents a process to produce artificial ultramarine.

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