Romancing the Source: Sri Lanka

Traditional Practices in Sri Lanka's Gem and Jewellery Industry
Using hand-powered equipment, these artisanal miners are dredging the river bottom in search of sapphires and other gems. Traditional mining methods are still at work in Sri Lanka in this modern age. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA.
This series of articles and videos follows a team of GIA Field Gemmologists on their travels from the mountains of Afghanistan to the jungles of Sri Lanka in search of the sources of coloured gemstones and the people who pursue them. This thrilling journey will take you to remote gemstone-mining areas, where you’ll witness the extreme effort required to wrestle nature’s treasures from the earth.

The romance of a coloured gemstone arises from its beauty, the exotic qualities of its source’s location, the adventure leading to its discovery and the stories of the people who seek it. These factors have united to create the allure of gemstones through the ages, and continue to do so even in modern times.

Sri Lanka is one of history’s most famous gem sources, providing gemstone lovers with numerous varieties for centuries. Sri Lanka is famous for sapphires of all colours, and large, fine examples grace the exhibitions of museums and royal jewellery collections. Traders—from the ancient Romans, Arabian sailors and European colonial powers, to the new rising wealthy class in China—have always coveted gems from Sri Lanka.

Mining practices in use today have centuries of tradition behind them. Thousands of pits measuring 2x2 or 2x4 metres and between 5 and 25 metres deep are found in the common mining areas of Ratnapura (which literally means city of gems), Elahera and Balangoda. The miners dig down until they reach the gem-bearing gravels, which they haul up for washing in the hope of finding gemstone treasure.

These traditional mining methods have maintained gemstone supplies for centuries and provided opportunities for a large numbers of miners. These methods are also environmentally sound, as Sri Lanka requires that the pits and environment be restored after mining. This philosophy allows mining and agriculture to coexist, with miners sometimes working in rice paddies.

Experienced Sri Lankan traders also travel the world in search of sapphire and other gems, stopping in places like Madagascar, Tanzania and Mozambique. They return with gemstones to be cut and processed in their own country and sold to the world markets. The Sri Lankans are also masters at heat-treating sapphire to improve colour and transparency.

The new generation of Sri Lankan gem traders comes from a long tradition, building upon the wealth of experience inherited from their fathers and grandfathers and adding new practices for the modern global market.

Now, join us in the gemstone treasure hunt by viewing the video. In true “reality TV”, you will witness the perils and effort involved in mining coloured gemstones and bringing them to market.

Sri Lanka
Miners in the famous gem-rich island of Sri Lanka still rely on traditional methods to unearth gemstones.

Andrew Lucas is Manager of Field Gemmology at GIA in Carlsbad, California; Tao Hsu is Technical Editor of Gems & Gemology.

National Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri Lanka, the entire gem and jewellery industry of Sri Lanka, and the people of Sri Lanka.