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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 “island of gems” 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 1660.

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
Agalawatta		Alexandrite
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 
			and topaz
Deniyaya		Alexandrite
Eheliyagoda		Blue sapphire, yellow sapphire, ruby 
			and geuda
Elahera			Pyrope garnet and zircon
Horana			Chrysoberyl cat’s eye, alexandrite,zircon 
			and geuda
Kataragama		Hessonite and pyrope garnet, 
			sapphireand garnet
Kuruwita		Sapphire
Matale (Rattota)	Topaz
Meetiyagoda		Moonstone
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 Lanka’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 “city of gems”. 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 k–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 gravel.

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 cat’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 Rs.30,000,000.

Blue Giant of the Orient: 466 carats mined in Kuruwita (Ratnapura district)

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 in 1926.

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 world’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. Ariyaratna’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
London
N17 6BW

b) Lake House Books
Sri Lanka

Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Woolf in Ceylon
(Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada)

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