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Gems & Gem Mining in Sri Lanka

Brilliant shiny facets reflecting light in exciting, eye-catching glittering sequences, in various colors and shades. These lovingly and expertly sculptured masterpieces embody the beauty of the island Sri Lanka. Embedded within one of her most bountiful locations on earth, Mother Nature has chosen Sri Lanka, blessing it with a variety and abundance of gem minerals that have extremely high quality and uniqueness. These valuable coveted conquests of beauty from the island, have been famously sought from time immemorial by many famous travelers and explorers even giving it the name ‘Ratna Deepa’ which means ‘Gem-Island’. Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage in Gems and Jewelry is one of its oldest and significant export-earners. Sri Lanka has been blessed with geological conditions that have provided an idyllic balance of chemistry, heat, pressure, and time, for these crystalline gems to weather and grow as they are deposited in the gravel. Sri Lanka can boast of some 70 varieties of precious and semi-precious gemstones. Some of these are the exhilarating blue, yellow, orange, pink, white and red Sapphires and Star Sapphires, captivating Cat’s Eyes, rare Alexandrites, sparkling Rubies, and beautiful Aquamarines. Adding to this glittering line up are Chrysoberyls, Citrines, Topaz, Tourmalines, Garnets, Moonstones, Zircons and many more beauties, found embedded in layers of gravel and sand, in river beds, marshes, and fields.

Gem Mining Locations
The gem-bearing belt covers approximately 25% of the island in the south-west central hills, and other gem bearing areas. Around nine-tenths of the island is underlain by rocks of the Precambrian age, and grouped as the Highland South-western group, The Vijayan Complex and Wanni Complex. Most gemstone minerals are found in what is known as the Highland group, which is the oldest broad rock-belt formed across the island. This rocky belt has edges shaped as a trough and bordered by its lush mountain peaks. This rocky trough-formation comprises crystalline metamorphosed rock, schist, marble, pegmatite and quartzite deposits that erode, resulting in the forming of these precious gemstones that are deposited in the river beds and streams. The main areas where a concentration of gems are found are in the areas of Ratnapura (meaning Gem Town), Pelmadulla, Balangoda, Eheliyagoda, Kalawana and Nivitigala in the Sabaragamuwa Province. There are also prominent gemstone deposits found in Okkampitiya, Kataragama, Matale, Meetiyagoda, Kolonne, Yakkalamulla and Buttala.

History and accolades
Sri Lanka’s gems have their pride-of-place in its history where the Mahavansa (the ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka), refers to its gems and jewelry. It is recorded that Lord Buddha himself visited Sri Lanka from India where he settled a dispute over a throne of gems between two kings Chulodara and Mahodara. It is also said that King Solomon wooed many a beautiful Queen, typically Queen Sheba, through the beautiful gems brought from this enchanting island. Even the famous traveler Marco Polo visiting in 1292, wrote of Sri Lanka as the “finest island in the world”, speaking of its gem stones that came from its streams. Alexandrite, known to be the rarest gem in the world, is found in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s famous blue sapphire weighing 466 carats is the largest known sapphire in the world. Other world-famous gems, is the Blue Giant of the Orient weighing nearly 500 carats and the bluebell of Asia, weighing 400 carats. The famed Sri Lankan Star Sapphire on permanent display at the Museum of Natural History in New York, has been named (owing to an oversight,) the Star of India. Throughout history though, Sri Lanka’s exciting gems have adorned many royal crowns and embellished royal jewelry. A 105 carat cat’s eye discovered in a paddy field in Sri Lanka, is famous among British Royalty, admired by Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and Queen Elizabeth.

Gem Mining Process
Observing an auspicious time and a customary religious ritual, gem miners get started on the mining process. Gems are commonly mined by digging pits and by tunneling. Stones are normally found in a layer of coarse, gritty or pebbly material, containing traces of clay and fine sand. The gravel-horde containing gems, is called “illam” and is found just below the alluvial deposits. Gem pits are of two kinds: Shallow, circular-well-shaped and deeper rectangular pits. Scaffoldings are erected and their spaces are filled with leaves to prevent the side from caving-in. Water is then pumped out of the pit. If the “illam” vein is found to run horizontally, the miners resort to the ‘tunneling’ method of mining. An alternative method of collecting “illam” is by placing wooden poles crosswise on the river bed and while standing on a pole, a miner drags the gravel towards him with a long stick. This gravel is then collected in buckets. In either method of mining, the gravel collected is washed in circular cane baskets by immersing them in water and rotating. This brings the lighter, ordinary gravel and sediment out, leaving the heavier pebbles behind. Then the baskets are held up to the sunlight for sorting.

Gem Cutting
A gem’s beauty, is created through careful, skilled, expertly applied cutting techniques and craftsmanship giving each stone its unique style of cut according to its type, size and properties. A variety of exciting designs are created with these valuable beauties, fetching them very high prices to match each exclusive style of stone and cut. Skilled and expert technicians use processes such as sawing, grinding, sanding, lapping, polishing, grilling, and tumbling that are applied to bring life to the rough stones turning them into beautiful, valuable and much desired gems.

A close-up of some of these lustrous gems.

Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of iron and titanium Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.0 Refractive Index: 1.776 Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Blue, violet-blue in varying tones The name Sapphire is said to have originated from Sanskrit, meaning precious to the Saturn Sanipriya (‘Sani’ = Saturn, and ‘Priya’ = Precious). Buddhist monks travelling to the Middle East are said to have introduced the stone there, as ‘Sanipiriya’ which later became to be known as ‘Sapir’, and then ‘Sapphire’. This stone is linked with Saturn, it is the birthstone for September and also the associated gemstone for the 45th wedding anniversary. Sri Lankan Sapphires are uniquely beautiful and valuable and excitingly extravagant; especially those from the Rakwana area which display unique properties in color, enhancing the wearers mood, style – the center of attraction at any occasion.

Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of chromium Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.0 Refractive Index: 1.776, Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Red with traces of violet. Also referred to as pigeon blood-red. Red fluorescence intensifies the body color. The name ‘Ruby’, derived from the Latin term ‘Rubens’ meaning Red thus giving this stone associations with Love, Passion and Power. It is also the birthstone for July and linked to the zodiacs Leo and Cancer and the associated gemstone for the 40th wedding anniversary. The Sri Lankan Rubies match in all properties their cousins from Myanmar, which are the most demanded. The Sri Lankan Rubies however, could be seen to display a greater brilliance with some traces of violet.

Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of chromium and yellow centers. Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.0 Refractive Index: 1.770 - 1.776, Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Pink with mixed yellow and orange. Padpardsha is a Sanskrit / Sinhalese term ‘Padma Raga’. The stone’s bright colors depict the enchantingly beautiful lotus flower adorned with its pink petals and yellow pollen. It is a special variety of the corundum mineral species displaying an extraordinary mixture of pink and orange.

Composition: Beryllium Aluminum oxide with traces of chromium Properties: Hardness: 8.5, Density: 3.71 Refractive Index: 1.745 - 1.754, Birefringence: 0.009 Color: Green body in daylight, that changes to red under tungsten light. Named in honor of the Tsar Alexander II of Russia during whose reign the Russian imperial guard colors were also red and green. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where Alexandrite and Alexandrite Cat’s Eye varieties of gems are found. Also known as the ‘color-change gem’, as it intriguingly changes color when switched from fluorescent to incandescent light, this stone is known to aid creativity and inspiration of the imagination as well as being a good omen to the wearer. It is also the associated gemstone for the 55th wedding anniversary. A “now you see it, now you don’t” satire of love and deception taking the wearer on a rare and exciting journey.

Chrysoberyl Cat’s Eye
Composition: Beryllium Aluminum oxide Properties: Hardness: 8, Density: 3.71 Refractive Index: 1.745 – 1.754 Birefringence: 0.009 Color: Brown, green, yellow and mixed hues. This stone has fine-silky inclusions that give it its famed Cat’s Eye. Some of the best qualities of the Chrysoberyl species are found in Sri Lanka. This awe-inspiringly beautiful stone is believed to offer protection and acts as a talisman against danger. Associated with wealth and luxury, this stone is also said to help in maintaining discipline, self-control, promoting concentration and learning, while enabling its wearer clear and far-sighted thinking abilities. A stone for Leos and the associated gemstone for the 18th wedding anniversary. A plush reflection of feline agility and enchantingly hypnotic, to be worn with pride and pomp.

Star Sapphire
Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of iron and titanium. Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.0 Refractive Index: 1.770 – 1.776 Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Blue, violet-blue in a variety of stunning tones. Captivatingly beautiful in violet-blue hues, some of the largest Star Sapphires come from Sri Lanka. They are ‘Star of Artaban’ (316 Carats), and the ‘Bismark Sapphire’ (98.6 carats), both of which are found in the famous Smithsonian Collection. The ‘Star of India’ and the ‘Midnight Star’ (116.76 carats) are both in the American Museum of National History in New York. The finest 393 carat ‘Star of Sri Lanka’ is in the possession of the National Gem & Jewelry Authority of Sri Lanka.

Star Ruby
Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of chromium Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.01 Refractive Index: 1.770 - 1.776 Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Star-spoke effect from bright radiant silky rays. The fascinating Star effect of this lovely stone shows fine needles of rutile-oriented rays in three directions. A perfectly cut stone shows the glamourous six-spoke star which seems to glide gracefully across the surface of the stone when it is moved around. A star-burst of beauty, sensuality and exciting illuminative animation as it indulges the wearer in its serene, luxurious beauty.

Composition: Potassium Aluminium silicate with a special optical effect of schiller called Adularescence. Properties: Hardness: 6 – 6.5, Density: 2.56 Refractive Index: 1.520 – 1.539 Birefringence: 0.008 Color: The lovely serene, yet exciting Moonstones are found in a variety of colors while the body ranges from colorless, to white, brown, yellow, grey or pink, boosting its beauty with the white or blue schiller effect. The moonstone’s signature ‘schiller’ effect is interestingly caused by what is called an intergrowth of two varieties of feldspar, both which have different refractive values. Ancient romans believed that the moonstone with its unearthly shimmer, was formed from frozen beams of moonlight. Mystical, unique and even mysterious when set in the right jewelry giving the owner its very own sense of happiness.

Composition: Fluorine containing aluminum silicate. Properties: Hardness: 8, Density: 3.53 Refractive Index: 1.610 – 1.630 Birefringence: 0.010 Color: Colorless, blue, yellow, pink, brown and orange. Topaz stones are seen in exciting amber-gold, reflections of a great cognac or the golden glint of the finest honey, tantalizingly alluring with a variety of lovely warm browns and oranges. Some paler pinks to darker cherry reds could be encountered rarely as well. Today, many Topaz stones could be commonly found in blue, thanks to an enrichment process that changes the colorless stones to blue. Ancient Egyptians are said to have believed that the Topaz was colored by the golden glow of the Sun God. Other beliefs that surround the Topaz say that it disperses magic and improves the eyesight while the Greeks also believed that the Topaz had power to increase its wearer’s strength and make them invincible. The gemstone associated with Sagittarius and the birthstone for the month of November. It is the birthstone for November and regarded as a talisman for Sagittarius.

Rhodolite Garnet
Composition: Magnesium-iron Aluminum Silicate Properties: Hardness: 7, Density: 3.7 – 4.2 Refractive Index: 1.74 – 1.79, Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Red, purplish red, pale, to deep mauve. The name garnet, is said to have been derived from the Latin term ‘granum’ meaning grainy or seed, which has its origins in Sanskrit. Its exciting pink to red colorings make it likened to the delicately formed seed of the ripe pomegranate. Garnets have been used in jewelry used in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times and were believed to protect the wearer from danger, being carried by early explorers to safeguard them. Some other early beliefs of the stone were that they had powers to bestow sentiments of love, commitment and devotion on their wearers. Garnets are the gemstones associated with the 2nd anniversary and also the birthstones for the month of January.

Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of chromium Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.0 Refractive Index: 1.776 Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Red with traces of violet. Also referred to as pigeon blood-red. Red fluorescence intensifies the body color. Found in a range of exciting hues from colorless, oranges, pinks, reds, blues, azures, greens and black, the Spinel is known as an ‘imposter’ in the history of gemology as it is found in crown jewels in place of rubies. For example, the famed ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’ in the British Crown Jewels of the Imperial State Crown of England, is a 170 Carat Red Spinel. The 361 carat Red Spinel ‘Timor Ruby’ owned by Queen Elizabeth has the names of its previous Mogul Emperor owners engraved on its face. These beautiful stones are often confused with either Rubies or Sapphires. Two rare blue spinels known as the cobalt spinel and the gahnospinel, are both found in Sri Lanka. The Spinel is also the associated gemstone for the 22nd Wedding anniversary.

Composition: Aluminum oxide with traces of chromium Properties: Hardness: 9, Density: 4.0 Refractive Index: 1.776 Birefringence: 0.008 Color: Red with traces of violet. Also referred to as pigeon blood-red. Red fluorescence intensifies the body color. The name Zircon is believed to be derived from the Persian term ‘zargun’ meaning ‘gold-colored’; however it also exists in other colors where the colorless was most popular. The Zircon’s high level of brilliance, refraction and dispersion of light gives it its unique likeness to a diamond. It was also referred to as ‘Matara Diamond’ for its origins in the Rakwana Hills in Southern Sri Lanka. Zircons are also produced in blue, yellow and colorless variants through a process of heat treatment accepted within the gem trade and they are also found in shades of green, red, brown and orange. Beliefs from the middle-ages include that Zircons promote sleep, endow prosperity and establish honor and wisdom on the owner.

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