An Island of gems
GEM INDUSTRY: The sixth revised edition of this excellent little
handbook has just been published and there is little doubt that it will
be a valuable help to gemmologists, geologists, mineralogists,
geographers and anyone who wants to know anything about gems and the gem
industry in Sri Lanka.
Indeed Sri Lanka is the veritable â€śisland of gemsâ€ť and there are
early recordings in the Mahavamsa that King Devanampiyatissa took many
gifts of gemstones to the Emperor Asoka of India.
Other notable travellers who commented on the abundancy of precious
stones including Fa-Hien (a 5th century Buddhist monk), Marco Polo in
the 13th century, Usa Batuta, the 14th century Arab traveller, and
Robert Knox, the English author who was captured by the King of Kandy in
All commented on the vast array of stones, particularly rubies,
topazes and sapphires that decorated necklaces, bracelets and anklets on
both humans and animals.
List of the occurrence of common gem
varieties in Sri Lanka
Location Types of Gems Found
Ambilipitiya All varieties of gems
Avissawella All varieties of corumdum
mineral including geuda, zircon
Badulla (Passara) Sapphire and geuda
Balangoda Blue sapphire, yellow sapphire, white
sapphire, ruby, geuda, alexandrite,spinel
Eheliyagoda Blue sapphire, yellow sapphire, ruby
Elahera Pyrope garnet and zircon
Horana Chrysoberyl catâ€™s eye, alexandrite,zircon
Kataragama Hessonite and pyrope garnet,
Matale (Rattota) Topaz
Monoragala Sapphire and geuda
Nivithigala Geuda and most other gems
Okkampitiya Blue sapphire, yellow sapphire and geuda
Pelmadulla Geuda, star sapphire, star ruby andother gems
Polonnaruwa Garnets, star sapphire, yellow sapphireand ruby
Ramapura Almost all gems
Wellawaya Colour change garnet
In fact Sri Lankaâ€™s gem mining industry is nearly 2500 years old.
Nearly nine-tenths of the island is underlain by rocks of Precambrian
age and around 25% of the total land area is reported to be gem bearing.
Gem bearing gravel and gem deposits are mainly scattered across the
central part of the country in the Sabaragamuwa province covering an
area of about ninety kilometres radius from Ratnapura - the â€ścity of
gemsâ€ť. It is estimated that over 10,000 gem mines or pits exist in the
Sabaragamuwa province alone, mostly near rivers. Nearly 50,000 people
are engaged in the gem mining industry.
Exploration for gems has been carried out in traditional methods for
generations by gem miners - locating mines mostly by word of mouth
without any knowledge of geology. In one case a illam kâ€“ra - a 4.5
metres steel rod is used to ascertain the depth, composition, size, and
colour of the illama to be mined.
Then also, knowing that gem minerals are often associated with water
and rivers, worn pebbles and quartz are studied to indicate gem bearing
gravel. The appearance and structure of valleys in certain areas also
gives clues as to mineral topography; and finally ancient and old river
beds in gem mining areas often lead to newer potential gem-bearing
Today however more scientific methods are used in large scale studies
of gem mining areas that lead to lucrative gem deposits. After
discovery, or potential discovery, there are five basic methods used to
recover gems in Sri Lanka: (1) placer mining (2) open cast mining (3)
shaft mining (4) underground mining [donova] and (5) river workings.
Sri Lanka and Brazil share the distinction of having the richest
repositories of gemstones both in quality and variety. Sri Lanka itself
claims to have over 70 gem varieties.
Among these sapphire and ruby, beryl, chrysoberyl including
alexandrite and catâ€™s eye, garnet, quartz, spinel, topaz, tourmaline,
moonstone and zircon are considered to be the most important gems.
Andalusite, agatite, axinite, danbur, diopside, ekanite, enstatite,
epidro.?, fibrolite, fluorspar, iolite (olichroite), kornerupine,
monazite, peridote, phenatite, sapphirine, scafolite, scheelite,
sinhalite, sphene and tasffeite are rare.
Sapphires, particularly blue sapphires, are among the most highly
valued of all gem stones found in Sri Lanka. Here is a list of some of
the most extraordinary and precious stones found:
Pride of Sri Lanka: 850 carats found in Ratnapura in 1998 valued at
Blue Giant of the Orient: 466 carats mined in Kuruwita (Ratnapura
Logan Blue Sapphire: 423 carats, gifted to the Smithsonian Institute
by Mrs John Logan.
Blue Belle of Asia: 400 carats, found in a paddy field in Pelmadulla
Star of India: 563 carats, misnamed and displayed in the Museum of
Natural History in New York.
Star of Lanka: 362 carats owned by the National Gem and Jewellery
Authority of Sri Lanka.
Rosser Reeves Star Ruby: 138 carats - the worldâ€™s largest star ruby
now in the U.S. National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian Institute.
There are several other fascinating chapters in D.H. Ariyaratnaâ€™s
intoxicating handbook on Gems of Sri Lanka including information on the
Geuda Industry (corundum stones and heat treatment), gem testing,
cutting and polishing, the Gem Trade (there are now thousands of gem
dealers all over the island), the Jewellery Industry, the National Gem
and Jewellery Authority, the Diamond Industry in Sri Lanka, as well as a
final captivating chapter on Astrology and Gemstones.
A glossary of names and definitions including tables of important
properties of gemstones (chemical composition, hardness, gravity etc.)
and a number of useful addresses end this valuable and fully illustrated
book which is available from:
a) Sri Lanka Gem Association
PO Box 1837
b) Lake House Books
Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Woolf in Ceylon
(Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada)