Sri Lanka has a long traditional association with the international gem & jewellery trade and has been known as the cradle of treasures for its precious, natural gemstones. The art of jewellery making and Sri Lanka’s gem industry have been widely acclaimed in literary work dating as far back as 250 B.C. Legends of Arabia, folk-love of China, India, Indonesia and tales of early European travelers to the East describe in great detail the fabulous gems & jewellery of Sri Lanka. Legend has it that King Solomon, wooded Queen Sheba with gifts of priceless Sri Lankan gems and that throughout the ages Sri Lankan gems have adorned Crowns and Thrones and bedecked royalty the world over, including more recently, Queen Victoria and Princess Diana of Britain.
The earth’s greatest concentration of fine gems are found within Sri Lanka’s land area of approximately 65,525 square kilometers. Geological opinion estimates 90% of Sri Lanka as being potential gem bearing land. There are 5 major gem producing areas in Sri Lanka with Ratnapura (the “City of Gems”) being the traditional gem mining area. The gem-bearing belt is approximately 80 miles in length and 20 miles wide, and lies south-west of the central hills. Apart from this main belt of production, there are also gem producing areas in several other parts of the country. A unique feature of Sri Lanka’s gem pits is that there is almost never an ‘illam’ (deposit) of any one type of gem. Always there is an assorted collection of stones like Spinels, Corundums (Sapphire and Ruby), Star Stones, Cat’s Eyes and many others.
Though the historical records of gem mining in Sri Lanka are rather scanty, scattered references in ancient documents and indirect evidence from travelers and geographers indicated that Sri Lanka’s gem trade dates back to about the first century AD.
Sedimentary gem deposits are by far the most prevalent type found in Sri Lanka and gem mining in Sri Lanka is almost entirely confined to the sedimentary deposits. Gems as a resource belongs to the Government, however license for mining them could be obtained for the privately owned lands. Most often gem mining is done in agricultural lands during off-season. All the miners are shareholders of the operation. The techniques of mining and processing in Sri Lanka though labour intensive is very efficient compared with the gem industries in other developing countries. The recovery of fine gems as small as one millimeter or less is assured although the techniques used are traditional. Protection of the environment is ensured by the National Gem & Jewellery Act No 50 of 1993. No machinery except water pumps are allowed in mining in paddy lands and rivers.
Sri Lanka’s breathtaking natural heritage is blessed with over 150 varieties of blue, pink, yellow and golden sapphires, rubies, padmaradchas, star sapphires, star rubies, alexandrites, cat’s eyes, spinels, acuamarines, topaz, zircons, garnets, tourmalines, moonstones, quartz and variety of rare stones. Amongst the outstanding gem stones that Sri Lanka has produced in the contemporary era are Blue Giant of the Orient (466 cts), Logan Blue Sapphire (423 cts), Blue Belle of Asia (400 cts), Rossar Reeves Star Ruby (138.7 cts), Star of Lanka (393 cts. Star Sapphire) and Ray of Treasure (105 cts. Cat’s Eye). The first three gems are on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, USA. The Blue Sapphire is Sri Lanka’s gem supreme and can be considered, the highly prized of all gems. It is second only to the diamond in hardness. The largest renowned Sapphire in the world weighing 42 pounds was found in the gem gravels of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka ranks with Burma, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand as one of the five most important gem bearing nations of the world.
The entire industry employs approximately 600,000 persons including miners, cutters and polishers, dealers, jewellery designers, manufacturers and craftsmen, marketers and sales people.