Sri Lanka is globally known for its thriving gem industry. As one of the top 5 gem-producing countries with the highest density of gems in the world, our significance lies in the relatively smaller geographical area compared to the other gem-producing countries.
Sri Lanka’s gem and jewellery value chain had been nurtured and fine-tuned for centuries with each generation adding to the collective knowledge and skills in gemstone mining, cutting, trading, jewellery manufacturing. Today our centuries-old tradition and reputation as a coloured gemstone mining, trading, and cutting hub converge with the technologies, skill sets, and strategies of the global market, providing Sri Lanka with a competitive edge over the other gem-trading countries.
Sri Lanka has a rich history as a gem producer and trade centre, dating as far as the 2nd Century. The country is considered to be the mysterious Tarshish which once supplied precious coloured gemstones to the court of King Solomon, and was referred to in Sanskrit as Ratna Deepa or the Island of Jewels. Early Arab traders called us the Serendib, which gave birth to the word serendipity, which according to the ancient records were a source of precious gemstones, including sapphire and cat’s-eye chrysoberyl.
The country’s abundance of precious gemstones had been well documented even in the earliest historical records. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy talks of the island’s beryl and sapphire in the 2nd century AD. Marco Polo who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1293 noted the abundance of gems, including ruby, sapphire, topaz, amethyst, and garnet. Arab explorer and chronologer, Ibn Battuta, visiting Sri Lanka in the 14th century, wrote of the variety of precious stones and gold and silver jewellery crafting he witnessed. The country’s gem and jewellery industry still retain the traditional knowledge accumulated throughout the centuries in combination with modern technology and the latest industry trends. </p
Even today gem mining and exploration continues to be a combination of traditional and modern methods. What may appear to be a primitive practice has proven to be highly efficient and well suited to the task of balancing productivity with sustainable gem mining and exploration. While most of the mining operations found in Sri Lanka are small in size and uses simple hand tools, these also allow for continuous mining, employment of a large workforce, and are less damaging to the environment. These traditions and regulations have succeeded in keeping the nearly 70,000 strong Sri Lankan miner community continuously employed between the nearly 6600 gem pits scattered around the gem deposits in Sri Lanka.
Well placed regulations ensure that the land is not exploited during the gem mining. Majority of Sri Lanka’s gem deposits are located in gem gravel that has been washed down from the mountains and deposited along the flood plains. Thus, agricultural lands can often yield precious stones buried within the earth. Regulations ensure that food production, livelihood generation, and environmental interest are also attended during extraction. Gem deposits are mostly extracted during the off-season in cultivation.
Sri Lanka has imposed strict regulations on mechanized gem mining to reduce environmental degradation and permanent damage to the country’s precious gem deposits. Moreover, as a signatory to all United Nations and International Labour Organization conventions on Labour including those on prevention of child labour, Sri Lanka’s gem mining and faceting industry does not engage child labour and driven by the profit-sharing system.
Gem cutting in Sri Lanka is another discipline where traditional techniques have stood the test of time. Our traditional gem cutting and polishing practices provide an excellent initial orientation of the rough crystal for maximum face-up colour and weight retention. In addition, the highly skilled recutting techniques practised in Sri Lanka has reached global standards of enhancing proportions, symmetry, and brightness. Our fine precision cutting to tight tolerances on modern lapidary equipment is being applied to calibrated goods that meet the strictest requirements, including those of the chronometer manufacturing.
Value additions through faceting, such as applying diamond proportions to sapphires have a strong demand among international and Sri Lankan clientele. While the cost of production is often higher due to weight loss, value addition enhances the stone by giving it more lustre and brilliance. The Asscher princess, Royal Asscher, and the modified emerald cut are some of the popular cutting methods used for Ceylon Sapphires and other gemstones. Moreover, value addition is an essential part of gemstone exportation in Sri Lanka as the exportation of rough uncut gemstones is prohibited.
Sri Lanka is the Mecca of gemology. The island of Sri Lanka has been blessed with some of the richest gem deposits on the planet. Metamorphism generated by a series of mountain-building events resulted in the gem wealth of our country we see today. Almost all of Sri Lanka’s sources are alluvial, containing rich concentrations of gem-bearing gravels called illam In addition to sapphires, over 130 varieties of other gems are recovered from the illam, including spinel, cat’s-eye chrysoberyl, and moonstone. More than two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s landmass indicates the presence of gem deposits, but up to only 20% of these resources have been explored, which leaves great potential for the future growth and the sustainability of the industry.
In addition to the unique advantages which affects the country’s gem and jewellery industry, Sri Lanka also has a very conducive trade environment with a highly skilled population of craftsmen, investment-friendly tax incentives; and the duty-free facility for uncut gems, diamonds and other raw materials.
Sri Lanka is an active member of the International Coloured Gemstone Association (ICA) and abides with the ATA Carnet system through Sri Lanka International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which allows duty-free and tax-free temporary import of goods for up to one year.