Sri Lanka: Treasure Island

A gemological tour of Sri Lanka’s gemstones
A gemological tour of Sri Lanka’s gemstones.
A wealth of gemstones lies under the soil of Sri Lanka: sapphire, ruby, cat’s-eye chrysoberyl, spinel, garnet, beryl, tourmaline, topaz, quartz, and many others. The Highland Complex, a wide band that runs roughly down the middle of the island, is a rich source of this gem material.

Sri Lanka: Treasure Island
Gems here are typically mined in two ways:
  • Alluvial mining: Gem deposits are typically found in secondary deposits like rivers. When a river transports gems, it also carries a variety of other denser materials that collect as gravel in the riverbeds. A lighter overburden material lies on top of the gemstones, and miners dig below it to reach the gem-bearing gravels.
  • Eco-Mining: Of the 6,500 licenses issued for mining in 2013, more than 6,000 were for pit-mining operations. In this type of mining, rocks and minerals are removed from an open pit that is typically 15 to 25 feet deep and six to 14 feet wide. The government favors this approach, as it is considered to be less harmful to the environment, and provides a more stable source of employment. Pits must be refilled and rehabilitated after the mining is completed.
Mined gems are often bought and sold in outdoor street markets that can have thousands of dealers. Gem material is often sent to Colombo, the country’s capital, for cutting and polishing.

Sri Lanka’s traditional cutters are considered some of the finest in the world in understanding sapphire rough. Their technique is well suited to high-end sapphires and other gemstones where placement of color is critical. A modern precision-cutting industry is also growing.

Sri Lanka is now a colored gemstone destination, blending centuries of mining, cutting, and trading experience with modern technology and global business strategy. Favorable import and export regulations have attracted foreign investment and brought rough material from around the world to the island, helping to make it a colored gemstone cutting, treatment, and trading hub. China’s growing appetite for gemstones has also helped the industry.

From mine to market – Sri Lanka is truly a modern success story.