Sri Lanka: From Mine to Market, Part 2

Andrew Lucas, Armil Sammoon, A. P. Jayarajah, Tao Hsu, Pedro Padua
September 30, 2014

Traditional Manufacturing 22K Gold Jewelry

Play Traditional Jewelry Manufacturing

As with gemstone cutting, jewelry manufacturing methods in Sri Lanka range from traditional to modern. We visited small workshops that were mainly involved in hand fabrication of 22K gold jewelry. Jewelers sat on the floor and created pieces by hand sawing, bending with pliers, soldering with handheld gas torches or even blowpipes, and hammering. Often they worked shirtless due to the daytime heat combined with the heat from the torches.

Modern Factory

Play Modern Jewelry Manufacturing

This was in contrast to the modern factories we visited, where jewelers worked at modern benches with a greater variety of hand tools and also used wax carving, mold making, and casting. Their designs were created with CAD/CAM. The mass-production capacity and consistent weight of these pieces gives the modern factories an advantage in keeping costs down for the popular 22K gold jewelry market. They also had greater capacity to produce other karat-gold alloys, as well as white gold and platinum, and to create more contemporary designs.

Retail

A good portion of the Sri Lankan retail market is tied to 22K gold jewelry for weddings and special occasions, investment, and the pawn industry. It's the traditional choice for brides, and virtually no wedding in Sri Lanka happens without it. Heavier jewelry pieces are preferred because most of their value lies in the gold commodity value, which can be regained when the jewelry is sold or, more likely, pawned. 

Another important aspect of the Sri Lankan retail industry is the use of 22K gold jewelry as an investment. The pawn business is tied directly to the jewelry industry. Sri Lankans place a percentage of their personal wealth in 22K gold jewelry, to be pawned in times of cash shortage. They have traditionally used crystal and cubic zirconia to add sparkle and color to their jewelry, since nearly all of the loan value comes from the intrinsic value of the gold. Even major banks there have substantial portions of their portfolios invested in the pawning of gold jewelry. 

Bracelets
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Sri Lankan Jewelry
While the 22K gold jewelry industry remains very strong, new generations of consumers are expanding their tastes and purchases. They are looking for lighter pieces and less-traditional designs and buying more for fashion than investment or religious purposes. They are also buying jewelry made with different types of karat gold, including white gold. Younger and wealthier, well-traveled consumers are showing more interest in diamonds and natural colored stones. Colored stone jewelry based on astrology can also have a strong appeal. 

Inside the Retail Industry

Play Sri Lankan Retail Industry

Colombo

After an early-morning arrival in Colombo, we visited the offices of Sapphire Capital Group, where we saw Sri Lankan dealers acting as agents and consultants for a foreign buyer. Numerous local dealers brought in their stones and offered them for sale. Sapphire Capital Group guarantees the material to be as represented.

Orienting the Star
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Cutting Experience and Skill in Colombo
We also documented two experts cutting and polishing blue sapphire, purple star sapphire, and cat’s-eye chrysoberyl. Some recutting was done to improve proportions, symmetry, and polish, to close windows and improve color, and to improve phenomena such as stars and cat’s-eyes.

Precision Is Number One
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Precision Lapidaries
The next day, we visited Precision Lapidaries of Colombo and interviewed managing director Faiq Rehan. There we witnessed precision calibrating, following very high standards for proportions, calibration tolerance, symmetry, and polish. Mr. Rehan explained his philosophy of putting quality and customer service first, with precise inventory and grading documents.

“I do not have inventory that sits around," Mr. Rehan said. "My inventory is not like the standard commercial material on the market, and it goes quickly to a growing niche market.”

Sea Street Retail

Play Sea Street

After touring the surrounding mining areas, we returned to Colombo to document 22K gold jewelry manufacturing at Sujitha Traditional Jewellery Workshop on Sea Street. We also visited leading retailers Wellawatta Nithyakalyani Jewellery and Devi Jewellers, where we interviewed each company's director. We also interviewed other industry leaders and visited Wellawatta Nithyakalyani’s modern jewelry manufacturing facility. At the Wellawatta retail store, we were able to photograph a Sri Lankan model wearing jewelry in a variety of traditional and modern styles.

Retail Leader Interview

Play Retail Leader Interview

Beruwala

The gem trading area of Beruwala is also known as China Fort, named after Chinese traders who settled there about 300 years ago. We visited the morning gem market, which actually lasted through mid-afternoon. The market was very busy, with dealers crowding the street over a two-block area. We were told that up to 5,000 dealers might be in the street and offices at any one time. This open market is not associated with any particular mining area but has material from the various mining areas of Sri Lanka.

Street Market
Beruwala’s street market was full of trading activity. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.
Most of the trade we witnessed was between Sri Lankan dealers, but there were also some foreign buyers. Dealing took place in the street as well as in the offices. Many foreign buyers utilized Sri Lankan dealers as their local contacts, advisors, and negotiators. While observing the dealing, we also visited traditional cutters, a heat-treatment facility, and a local gemological laboratory.

Street Market Cutter
This traditional cutter, just off the busy street market in Beruwala, shared an enormous amount of knowledge with us about orienting sapphire rough. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.

Ratnapura

Ratnapura Sapphires
Many of the gems for sale in the Ratnapura open-air gem market were sapphires from nearby mining operations. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.
At Ratnapura, which is Sinhalese for “city of gems,” the street market was crowded like the Beruwala market but covered a wider area. The streets were often crowded with dealers. There were also numerous offices, traditional cutting shops and burners. Again, most of the transactions involved Sri Lankan dealers selling to each other, but there were also foreign dealers buying, many with local dealers advising them. As in Beruwala, material found in the street market would often be brought to a dealer in an office. Most of the goods being offered were rough sapphires, but we also saw cut sapphires and a wide variety of rough and cut colored gemstones, including cat’s-eye chrysoberyl and alexandrite.

The City of Gems

Play

After leaving town, it was easy to find small-scale traditional pit-mining operations in the area around Ratnapura. All of the mines we visited were pit-mining operations that used traditional methods of digging the gravels and tossing up the buckets or hoisting them with a hand-powered winch.

Ratnapura Mines

Play Mining Traditions

Balangoda

Balangoda was especially valuable for documenting the Sri Lankan mining industry. In one day, we were able to visit traditional pit mines, mechanized mines, and river mines and interview experts involved with each process. We also had the opportunity to see a couple of processing operations that used sluices based on Australian designs.

Mechanized Open-pit Operation
Mechanized mining is rare in Sri Lanka, but at Balangoda our contacts were able to take us to three sites. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.
At Balangoda, we  saw how water both helps and hinders mining operations. At one of the mechanized open-pit operations, the water supply had become so saturated with mud that it could not be used to wash the gravel in the sluice. The miners were using backhoes to remove the mud while the gravel was transported to another washing area. At another relatively large mechanized operation, the open pit had partially filled with rainwater that had to be pumped out before mining could continue. 

We also visited a pit mine that used only manual labor, located right next to a mechanized operation. Both were in full production. Later, we went to a traditional pit-mining operation where the rainwater had just been pumped out and they were starting to remove the illam. At one of the mechanized open-pit operations, they also washed the overburden, as both the overburden and the illam were fairly rich in gemstones.

Mining in Balangoda

Play Rain Partially Fill Pits

The highlight of the Balangoda mining area was a visit to a river mining operation right next to a picturesque tea plantation. Seven miners worked the deposit. They had chosen an area where the water slowed and built a dam to help trap the gravels. They scooped out the overburden gravel until they reached the illam, which they loosened with long pointed steel rods. They dragged up the gem-bearing gravel so it could be washed by the rushing water and removed any visible gemstones. The remaining gravel was set aside for possible further washing. Besides sapphires and other gemstones, these miners were also finding gold.

At Balangoda, we were able to document all forms of traditional and modern mechanized mining conducted in Sri Lanka: digging in open pits and traditional pit shafts, the use of excavators and trucks to remove overburden and gem gravels in open-pit mechanized mines, mechanical sluices, hand-washing gravel and traditional river mining.

Balangoda Mines
Most of Balangoda’s mines were muddy pits worked by hand. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.

Elahera

The last famous Sri Lankan mining area we visited was Elahera, where we saw mechanized and traditional pit mining. One of these mechanized operations also had a problem with the water supply becoming too muddy for their sluice, so they were trucking gravel to another washing area. There we watched gem gravels being washed and the sluice being opened up to examine the yield. 

The next stop in Elahera was an open-pit operation using traditional mining methods. A worker at the bottom of the pit removed overburden and gravel with a scraper and placed it in a basket held by another miner. With almost perfect coordination, the basket filled with mud and gravel was tossed up to a chain of three miners, each one a bit higher up, until the basket was emptied and placed in a pile at the top of the pit. As the mud- and gravel-filled basket was tossed to the top, an empty basket was thrown back to the bottom of the pit in what looked like a professional juggling act.

Elahera Mining

Play Mechanized Pit Mining in Elahera

One of the surprising aspects of Sri Lanka is that you come across traditional pit mines just driving down the roads. The mine where we witnessed the acrobatic tossing of baskets was alongside a paved road, as was another shallow pit operation we found by accident right in front of a home and farm. At this shallow pit operation, the overburden was removed quickly and they were just starting to reach the illam and dig horizontally from the pit to remove the gem-bearing gravels. This was a traditional mining operation: All the work was done with hand tools and the gravel was removed in baskets on the miners’ shoulders.

Open-Pit Mine in Elahera
At this open-pit mine in Elahera, mud was constantly being scooped up, placed in baskets, and tossed up the pit. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.

Summary

After extensive observations and interviews covering all sectors of the Sri Lankan gem and jewelry industry, we were able to obtain a clear picture of this dynamic market. While Sri Lanka struggled to regain its status in the global market from the 1970s through the 1990s, the last decade has been very encouraging. With more trade-friendly policies, they have become competitive in the global market for rough sapphire and other colored gemstones from around the world. Domestic mining activity has increased with renewed interest and higher prices sparked by China and other new markets.

The Sri Lankan industry combines traditional cutting experience with modern skills to suit all market sectors, and its trading models incorporate decades of relationships and experience into strategies for today's markets. Jewelry manufacturing, though focused primarily on 22K gold jewelry for the domestic market, is moving to different styles to suit new consumers. The Sri Lankan retail industry hopes to continue the traditionally strong 22K gold jewelry business for weddings, special occasions, and investment as it cultivates the newer generations’ taste for gemstone, karat gold, and platinum jewelry, as well as diamond and colored gemstone jewelry. All in all, this is an industry that honors tradition while also showing strong potential for future growth.

Left to right: Andrew Lucas, Shamil Sammoon, and Pedro Padua
Left to right: Andrew Lucas, Shamil Sammoon, and Pedro Padua, shown in Ratnapura, visited mining areas during an enlightening and unforgettable trip. Shamil tirelessly escorted the team to mining areas and around this incredible island, sharing his expertise and decades of family experience.

More to Come

These field reports will be followed by a more in-depth Gems & Gemology article with further reporting on our findings from the Sri Lanka expedition. We will also continue working closely with the Sri Lankan industry to provide updates on this dynamic industry and its importance to the global markets.

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