Sri Lanka-Island of Gems Through the Ages

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blue sapphire

Blue Sapphire - National Gemstone of Sri Lanka.


An increasing global awareness of the economic potential of gemstones has created an unprecedented demand for them.  It has led to an accelerated production drive and an intensified search for them in gem producing countries.

 Gem producing areas of Sri Lanka (Marked blue) Galle,(marked purple)

sri lanka sapphire


Sri Lanka ranks with Myanmar, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand as one of the worlds most important gem bearing nations.  The story of Sri Lankas gems is as old as civilization itself.   Legends, myths and the occult have been associated with the long history of the islands precious stones.   Gems are deeply embedded in the traditional beliefs and the religious life of the majority of Sri Lankans.  Priceless gems are among the treasures kept in the relic chambers of the great Buddhist stupas in the island. 

The earths greatest concentration of gems in over 50 varieties is found within the countrys land area of approximately 25,000 square miles.   The abundance of a variety of gems in the country earned it the name Ratna Deepa (Island of gems) centuries ago.  The Arabs called this the land Jazirat Kakut, which denotes the same meaning. The fame of her gems spread far and wide.  These priceless precious stones have adorned the crowns and thrones of royalty in many parts of the world.

References to Sri Lankas precious stones are found in several historical records on Sri Lanka.   Among them are Record of the Buddhist Countries (around A.D. 412) by the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-hsien and The Historic Tragedy of the Island of Ceylon (A.D. 1685) by Portuguese Army Captain Joao Ribeiro. Writes Fa-hsien:¦there is a district of about 10 square li which produces the mani jewel.  The king has posted guards here, and takes a levy of three tenths of the jewels that are found.

The origin of the term mani jewel is manikya or menik - the Sinhala and Sanskrit words for gems.   The district cited here is believed to be Ratnapura (city of gems) famed for precious stones throughout history.   The Ratnapura basin is considered the traditional area for gemstones. 

Describing Sri Lankas gems Capt. Ribeiro states: Here are all the valleys and mountains that are full of them and are obtained with little trouble; such as rubies, the finest that can be found anywhere within our discoveries, all in separate crystals; sapphires, topazes (some of them of extraordinary size) cats eyes garnets, beryls, jacinths, tourmalines and various others, which are held in no account there, since they are the stones with which the river beds are furnished.

Neither ingenuity nor the latest technology can duplicate a Sri Lankan gem.  It is a unique product of nature, which has gifted this country the most rare, best and most precious of gems, including Blue sapphires, Cats eyes, Alexandrites, Star Rubies, Moonstones, Amethysts, Aquamarines, Garnets, and Zircons etc.

Other rare gemstones include Andalusite, Apatite, Diopside, Ekanite, Enstatite, Epidote, Euclase, Fibrolite, Fluorite, Indocrase, Kornerupine, Kyanite, Sinhalite, Scapolite and Taffeite.

orange sapphire

Orange Sapphire

The Great Aqua of Sri Lanka, with a weight of roughly 1,890 carats is the largest gem found in the country.  This aquamarine yielded a sparkling gem of 946 carats, which became part of Saudi Princes royal collection. 

An exquisite variety of these occur mainly in alluvial gravels found in valley bottoms into which flow tributary hillside streams that carry gem minerals released by weathering from the bedrock sources located at hilltops and hill sides, according to Gems and Gem Deposits of Sri Lanka by H.S. Gunaratne and C.B. Dissanayake.   These stones are found in a vast range of colours and colour-mixtures some of which are extremely rare.  Some of the gems display colour changes under different conditions of light.  In others, the inclusions within display visual and reflection effects.

pink sapphire

Pink Sapphire

Apart from Ratnapura, many of the new gem mining areas have been chance discoveries.  Some of them were made in the process of digging a foundation for a construction work, sinking of a well, ploughing a field or by chance exposure resulting from landslides or erosion of top soil following heavy rains and floods.

The opening up of jungle land for a colonization project led to the discovery of the Elehera gem deposits, which turned out to be one of the most high-yielding gemming areas where millions of dollars worth of gems have been recovered.

A unique feature of Sri Lankas gem pits is that there is almost never an `illam (deposit) of any one type of gem.  Instead, there is always an assorted collection of stones like Spinels, Corundums (Sapphire and Ruby), Star Stones, Cats Eyes and many others.

The main varieties of Sri Lankan gems are:

Corundum (Ruby, Star Ruby, Star Sapphire, Yellow Sapphire, Golden Sapphire, Padparadscha and White Sapphire), Chrysoberyl (Chrysoberyl Cats Eye, Alexandrite, Alerxandrite Cats Eye and Chrisoberyl), Spinel (Blue Spinel, Red Spinel and Mauve Spinel), Topaz (White Topaz), Beryl (Aquamarine, White Beryl and Pearl Green Beryl), Zircon (Green Zircon, Yellow Zircon, Brown Zircon and the very rare Red and Blue Zircon) Garnet (Rose red coloured, Red, Mauve, Hessonite Garnet and Spessartine Garnet), Tourmaline (Green and Brown varieties), Quartz (Yellow, White, Brown, Rose and Purple or Amethyst) and Feldspar (Moonstone) 

Pathparaja Sapphire

The Blue Sapphire is Sri Lankas gem supreme.  And her blue sapphires are the finest in the world.  The highly priced of all gems, it is second only to the diamond in hardness.  The worlds largest known sapphire weighing 42 pounds was found in the gem gravels of Sri Lanka.  The Blue Giant of the Orient weighing nearly 500 carats and the 400-carat Blue Belle of Asia, which a British multi-millionaire purchased, were also from this country.

The third hardest mineral known to man, Sri Lankas Alexandrite has achieved perfection in sizes that are larger than that elsewhere.  The British Museum contains two exceptionally fine specimens of Sri Lankan Alexandrites, weighing 43 and 27.5 carats respectively

Yellow Sapphire

Yellow Sapphire

With a few exceptions, almost all gems are minerals that have been defined as a naturally occurring element formed through natures inorganic process.  It is a homogenous body having a definite chemical composition, a crystal structure and optical and physical properties.   Gem material is found among a very wide range of minerals, formed in the same manner of any other mineral.  The primary feature that gives a mineral the distinction of a gemstone is its beauty. 

Gem cutting as well as polishing as well as jewellery manufacture are Sri Lankan crafts, which have achieved the highest level of perfection over the centuries.  Today, the infusion of modern technology has invigorated these trades.  The combination of traditional skills and artistry with the latest techniques and designs has enabled the countrys lapidaries and jewellery manufacturers to turn out products of exquisite beauty and superior quality to satisfy the demands of the most discerning buyers.

The growth and transformation of these industries owe much to the active encouragement and incentives extended to them by the Government and its liberalized policies.

Reproduced with kind permission from the National Gem and Jewellery Authority


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