Exploring the Gem Trade of Sri Lanka
Ratnapura, Beruwala, Eheliyagoda, Colombo: September 2017
The AIGS school took a group of students out of the classroom and into the real world to gain some real world experience. It’s one thing to sit in a class with a loupe and a microscope and discuss whether a stone is a synthetic or heat treated and it’s another thing to be surrounded by people on all sides shoving each other to show you a few stones in their hands and having to decide on the spot whether that stone might be a fake or not. This trip gave students the chance to see real gem trading markets, to see the mines where the stones come from, and to see how stones are processed after they’re mined with heat treatment and cutting. It was quite an adventure.
The first day of the four-day trip started with a long one. We arrived at the airport at 6:30am, with enough time to make sure that 22 students would be ready to check in to the flight at 9:00. The trip from Bangkok to Colombo is about 3.5 hours and it was still early so I think most of the group slept on the plane. When we landed in Sri Lanka, everyone was well rested and refreshed. The school had taken care of the visas, so getting through immigration was quick and easy and soon we were greeted by our guide Milan, a graduated AIGS student and business man who speaks fluent English, French, and Singhalese, the language of Sri Lanka.
Our group was large, so our transport for the duration of the trip was a full sized coach bus which was very comfortable for everyone. We drove directly from the airport to our first destination which was Eheliyagoda, to see the heat treatment process. The traditional way of doing heat treatment in Sri Lanka is by mouth with coals and a blow pipe. That method only provides low temperature heating and many of the Sri Lankan sapphires need a high temperature heat treatment to unlock the hidden blue color trapped in the core of the stone. This is what we witnessed; gas powered furnaces heating sapphires at high temperatures. We didn’t show up at the right time to see them open the furnace and inspect the stones, but we got a good demonstration of how heat treatment works and the kinds of crucibles and powders they use to keep the stones safe while heating them.
We spent about half an hour with the stone burner and then had to move on because it was lunch time and everyone’s stomachs were grumbling. Our first meal in Sri Lanka was a buffet of delicious Sri Lankan food; rice with a variety of vegetable and meat curries plus cake for desert. Once everyone had been fed, we got back on the bus and drove for another hour past roadside gemstone mines around the Ratnapura area until we finally arrived in Pelmadulla, where there is a rough gemstones market.
The Pelmedulla market is an interesting one because it’s located in an outdoor bus station. While big regional and local busses come in and out of the stop, there is a group of men gathered in the parking lot, trading stones and money. This market is only for rough stones and begins at 4:00 in the afternoon. We quickly learned that there is so much gem trading around Ratnapura (meaning “Gem City” in Singhalese) that each market has a specific focus. We spent almost an hour at this market as our master gemologist and teacher Jayesh Patel along with our guide Milan helped the students to identify and purchase rough stones.
To conclude our first day, we visited the office of one of the largest stone dealers in the area and got to see a lot of beautiful stones that were mined and cut locally. We spoke to the dealers about the stone trade while watching the sun set over Ratnapura from their rooftop patio. This was a chance to relax after a long and exciting day. To end the evening, we had another buffet of regional food at a beautiful outdoor restaurant with live music by local musicians. The food was delicious, the setting was tranquil and peaceful, and the music was delightful.
On our first morning in Sri Lanka, we woke up in a beautiful resort called Lake Serenity. Bungalows dot the property and surround a large and beautiful lake with an open air restaurant next to it. We had our first Sri Lankan breakfast which included fried eggs, sausage, bread, rice, and veggie curries, plus juice.
After breakfast, we boarded the bus and drove for half an hour, past mines and rubber tree plantations, and headed to the nearby town of Nivithigala to see another gem market. This one wasn’t in a bus station but next to the side of the road. These seemingly arbitrary locations make a visitor wonder how these different markets started and if there is any significance to their locations. This morning was especially amusing because it started to rain during our gem trade action, so everyone was running around trying to show us stones and also avoid the rain.
We saw a lot more rough stones on the second day and since we already had some experience with the chaotic style of the outdoor markets, the students were much more prepared to buy stones. With the help of Jayesh, Milan, and two other gem dealers that Milan brought along with us, we were able to prevent any synthetics and fakes to get sold as real stones. Only one stone slipped through. One student was tricked into buying a stone outside of the eyes of our guides. The stones ended up being a piece of green glass that was sold for $20 as a pale green sapphire. $20 is a good price to pay for such a valuable lesson. Everyone was a little more careful to show their stones to our guides before purchasing after that incident.
Our next stop was the Milan’s office in Ratnapura called Neil Gems. The main gem trading street in Ratnapura is called Council Avenue and is lined with the offices of gem dealers and traders. The street is full of men walking around with stones in their pockets. At the end of the street, it turns into a small alley called Hakamuwa which runs a short while until it hits the Kalu Ganga river. Hakamuwa is full of lapidary shops where you can see stones getting cut on modern Sri Lankan-made cutting machines and also the more ancient Sri Lankan bow driven machines called Hanaporuwa.
As our large coach bus pulled onto the small street, I can imagine that every gem dealer pulled out their phones and called all their friends. A lot of money just arrived in our pockets and the dealers were excited. Our group of 23 dispersed among three floors of the Neil Gems office and for the next few hours we had a non-stop parade of dealers coming in to show us their stones. This market was almost exclusively cut stones and we got to see everything we had hoped for from the most deep Ceylon blue Sapphires to the rare and expensive Padparadscha Sapphires, to the phenomenal star Sapphires and Cat’s-Eye Chrysoberyl’s. It was an exciting day and I was really surprised at the intensity and ferocity with which our students were able to negotiate. Everything in Sri Lanka is negotiable it seems and within the gem trade especially, the only price is the price you agree on. Several of our students obviously had a lot of previous experience because the dealers were starting high and the students were starting low, but not too low as to be rude or ruin a deal. In the end, students and dealers were happy as money exchanged hands and our guides were again verifying that no synthetics or fakes were getting sold as genuine stones.
After an intense morning of gem buying we went to a nice lunch buffet with a grand piano player to entertain us. Afterwards, it was time to see where the stones came from, the mine. The mine we visited was not in the forest or in farmland as I anticipated but behind some very nice looking houses. We walked through a maze of sidewalk paths that took us behind a neighborhood, across a small river, and eventually into a wooded place. There, we discovered a hand made shack that provided protection from the rain. Speaking of rain, as we started to walk across the logs that enabled us to cross the river, it started to rain. It wasn’t a light shower like we saw in the morning, but a downpour.
Everyone started pulling out jackets and covering themselves. All the while the noise of the mining machinery was getting louder and louder. When we arrived at the mine it was getting a bit crazy as a hard rain came down around us and the volume of the machinery made it difficult to hear each other. The mine owner was excited to see us and we were excited to see him but around us was the chaos of mother nature. He invited us to go down into the mine. Many students looked down the deep, dark, and slightly intimidating mine hole and said, “No thanks, a photo and a look is good enough.”
But for six of us who needed the full experience, we descended. One by one, and barefoot as the mine owner insisted, we climbed down the ladder-like timbers that held the mine shaft up. Our most adventurous student climbed down in a full designer outfit and the last thing she said to me before she descended into the pit was, “Goodbye Gucci,” with a big smile on her face. Around us was the roar of the machinery and the sound of the pounding rain hitting the tarp that protected the mine. Below was the steamy, yet quiet darkness. When you get to the bottom, you discover why you had to come down with no shoes: The generator is pumping water out of the mine but it’s far from dry down there, especially with rain. There is a tunnel ahead of you that requires some serious bending over to walk through. The whole thing was very wet and at one point the water came up to my mid-thigh. Along the tunnel route, we passed two miners that were digging in a small side path. We continued on until the tunnel ended in space that almost felt like a small room. There were two more miners sitting down digging with metal picks and hammers.
Milan translated for us to give us an idea about what it’s like down there for the miners and how the mining process works. The adrenaline of the climb and the rain and the heat made us all breathe hard as we listened with interest. The miners in the mine are digging at the dirt and sand they call illam with metal tools. They fill bags with the gem bearing dirt and every 2 months they take the bags to the river and clean and sift what’s in the bags. They find only a few stones for every bag they bring up. That’s a lot of work for such little treasures. We stayed in the mine for a little longer to watch the miners and then retreated back to the surface to continue our gem adventure in more civilized places.
For our afternoon education, we headed back to the Neil Gems office to see a step-by-step demonstration of the gem cutting process. A local cutter with more than 20 years of cutting experience arrived and set up the machine. The cutting machines that we saw everywhere we went are Sri Lankan made copies of the Japanese Imahashi cutting machine. They are made by a variety of companies but the most popular and reputable company is called Sterling in Colombo. The machines are simply referred to by the Sri Lankans as “Imahashi machines.”
Milan gave the cutter a rough blue sapphire that he purchased earlier in the day and within an hour the blue gemstone had become a well cut, glittering blue jewel. It was fun to watch him perform every step of the stone cutting. He started by holding the stone in his hand and rubbing it against the course spinning diamond powder-coated lapidary wheel. He continuously inspected it as he gave it the perfect general shape to take facets without losing much weight. Once this crucial step of preforming was done, he mounted the stone onto a metal dop using hot wax and loaded the dop into the handpiece. With the help of the hand piece, he is able to cut faces in the stone at any angle from 0 to 90 degrees around the circumference of the stone. He cut the facets onto the stone with a finer lap wheel and then once he was happy with the layout and symmetry of the facets, he moved to his finest lap wheel and polished all the faces. He then flipped the stone upside down and cut and polished the girdle of the stone. After that he soaked the stone in alcohol or acetone for a few minutes to dissolve the wax and when he took the stone out it emerged as a faceted gem.
We were bombarded with a few more dealers as we boarded the bus. A few students made some last-minute deals before we headed back to Lake Serenity for the night. We enjoyed another Sri Lankan meal and then went to sleep after another busy, fun, and informative day.
We checked out of Lake Serenity as a wedding party was preparing for a wedding. I saw some beautifully dressed people as I made my way to breakfast. We ate our final meal at the resort and then boarded the bus to take us to a new city, Beruwala. The road to Beruwala is long and very windy which upset a few stomachs on the way there. When we arrived into the city, we had to transfer to Tuk-Tuks because the bus couldn’t navigate down the tiny streets. Four at a time, in a parade of Tuk-Tuks, we made our way to the main gem market which consists of dozens of guys dressed almost all in white, congregating around the road and trading gems.
Once again a large group of foreigners arrived and everyone in the market seemed to get very excited. Milan and his group had arranged three offices for us to sit and look at stones in. It was a very orderly day where dealers from outside would come inside the office in small groups and show us what they had. It definitely still had the wild and chaotic feeling from previous market days with many people trying to get your attention and negotiating prices all at the same time. At the end of the day, the students had done some heavy negotiating and most were happy with their purchases. A few of the students wanted more time to look at stones and negotiate so a plan was made to return to the market the next day.
After three long days of mines, markets, and cutting, we had the evening off to retreat to our villa, go swimming, and have a cook out. The accommodations for our third night in Sri Lanka were two villas that were on the same street. The main villa had a pool and was where the meals were served. We used the evening to socialize and get to know the members of the trip better. Some of the group relaxed in their beds while others went swimming and drank some beers. The night was exactly what is was meant to be-a break from gem hunting to relax. It was definitely a fun evening in the pool!
On our last day, the group split into two. A small group of students wanted to go back to the Beruwala market and look at more stones. The rest of us left the villas and boarded the bus to our final destination, Colombo. Even though we flew into the Colombo Airport, we hadn't actually seen the city or it’s neighboring ocean yet. We drove for a few hours and then arrived at the Neil Gems office in Colombo. It was a beautiful office and very different than the various offices we’d occupied in Ratnapura and Beruwala. It was all concrete and glass and very modern and minimalistic. We spent a few hours speaking with the guys from Neil Gems and learning a little more about Sri Lankan culture. Some of the students still needed to settle up with Milan from the stones they bought the previous day so he went through every stone with every student to double check that there were no fakes and to make sure they were happy with their purchases.
We also had a few hours to explore Colombo and do a little shopping before we met up with the other part of our group at dinner. Some people went to a local mall to buy souvenirs and Ceylon tea, one of the things that Sri Lanka is known for. After a few casual hours of shopping, we changed into evening clothes and then met back on the bus for our last dinner. The final meal that we shared as a group was definitely the best meal we ate in Sri Lanka. Everyone loved it. There was Sri Lankan food for those that hadn’t yet had their fill, there was a sushi bar, a pasta bar, a salad bar, a pizza bar, and finally a dessert bar. It was a feast and we spent several hours slowly filling our bellies with all the delicious things that were offered. We had a late flight back to Bangkok so there was no rush. Eventually, the time came to leave and we boarded the bus, ready to return to our normal lives. We all said our personal goodbyes to Sri Lanka and as we arrived at the airport we said our thank yous and goodbyes to Milan for taking us on such an amazing trip.
Sri Lanka definitely lived up to its name and reputation as a Gem Island. We saw so many amazing things that made everything in the AIGS Accredited Gemology course much more vibrant and real, from the mining process to the heating, cutting, and finally the buying and selling of gemstones. We definitely had a taste of what the gem trade is like in Sri Lanka along with it’s local food and I don’t think any of the students will forget it anytime soon. Personally, I can’t wait to go back.
About the Author
Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gemcutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. He is currently working on a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He works as a Lapidary Instructor for the Institute of Gem Trading as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.
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Originally Published on the Institute of Gem Trading website, May 2018medium.com