Cutting Precious Stones on the Island of Gems
A version of this article original appeared in The Journal of Gemmology, 36(5), 2019, pp. 298–315
The art of fashioning stones in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) goes back more than 2,000 years, and gems have been mined on the island for even longer⁶. Gemstones are deeply tied to Sri Lanka’s history and the island is referenced in many historical texts, from Pliny in 77 AD² to Marco Polo in ~1300¹⁰. Polo tells us, ‘You must know that rubies are found in this Island and in no other country in the world but this. They find there also sapphires and topazes and amethysts, and many other stones of price’¹⁰. In 1344, the Islamic traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta wrote:
Gems are met with in all localities of the island of Ceylon. In this country the whole of the soil is private property. An individual buys a portion of it and digs to find gems. He comes across stones white blanched: in the interior of these the gem is hidden. The owner sends it to the lapidaries who scrape it until it is separated from the stones which conceal it. There are the red (rubies), the yellow (topazes), and the blue (sapphires) which they call neilem (nilem).⁵
The modern history of Sri Lankan gem cutting began in the early 1980s, and its evolution since then has resulted in dramatic improvements in the faceting of stones there (e.g. Figure 1). Prior to the modern era, a more ancient narrative was in progress that is much harder to pin down. The Sri Lankan cutting industry initially developed around the south-western coastal towns of Galle, Gintota and Beruwala, at a time when the Sri Lankan gem trade was mainly in the hands of Middle Eastern traders who settled in the country between 400 and 800 AD (Ahmed Shareek, pers. comm. April 2017). They had caravans that travelled inland to buy rough stones from miners in gem-bearing localities such as Ratnapura and Eheliyagoda, and then brought the stones back to the seaports of Colombo and Galle for export on Arab ships⁹.
Efforts to modernize the gem industry in Sri Lanka⁷ were mostly unsuccessful until the 1980s. Among the many subsequent developments were important advances in the Sri Lankan gem-cutting industry, which are described here and based on information provided by cutters, factory owners and machine manufacturers. As the industry has developed, it has also grown, and it is now estimated that there are around 15,000 colored stone cutters in Sri Lanka¹¹ that facet free-size, calibrated and melee gems for the jewelry and watch industries.
TRADITIONAL CUTTING TECHNIQUES
The traditional machine used for cutting gems in Sri Lanka is called the hanaporuwa, and this bow-driven device was typically used perfectly preform the stone¹³. The cutter sits in front of the machine and draws the bow back and forth with his right hand in order to spin a vertical lap disc that is made of lead embedded with carborundum powder (Figure 2). The stone is pressed against the lap with the left hand. The cutter can either rotate the stone with his fingers in order to cut a cabochon or create a preform shape for a faceted stone by holding the stone steady against the lap (⁶; Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. September 2018). Cutting in this freehand style often results in so-called native-cut proportions (e.g. Figure 1a) and this method is still the common way of cutting star sapphire cabachons today in Sri Lanka. For cutting a faceted stone, the preform is then taken to another machine, the bannku opa pattalaya, for cutting and polishing of facets.
Bannku opa pattalaya literally means ‘bench machine’. It consists of a large (20 in., or 51 cm) copper wheel built into a table and connected to a crank with a rope (Figure 3a). One person would crank the machine (e.g. Figure 4), which would cause the copper wheel to spin, and the lapidary would use a handpiece called a thanaasuwa (or sanaasuwa) to press the stone against the wheel to simultaneously cut and polish the facets from the preform. In Beruwala, until the late 1980s such machines were typically cranked by men from nearby rice fields who made INR10 (£1.15) per day (Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. April 2017). The legs of this heavy machine had to be very strong, and consisted of large wooden timbers (6 × 6 in. or ~15 × 15 cm) that suspended the 5-cm-thick wooden table.
The thanaasuwa handpiece represents an interesting example of early faceting technology because we see a similar design — called a cadran (or quadrant) — in Prague in 1609 ³ and in France in the 1670s (e.g. Figure 3b; ⁴). The origin of the handpiece has passed out of living memory in Sri Lanka, but it seems to have been in use for several centuries, possibly even back to the 1600’s (Jayasingha Jayamini, pers. comm. July 2019) indicating that it could have made its way to Sri Lanka via the Dutch, the English (who also used the quadrant handpiece in the 1700's), or possibly the French via Burma.
A homemade polishing compound was used on the bannku opa pattalaya machines until diamond powder was first adopted in the 1970s. According to Keerthi Jayasinghe (pers. comm. October 2017), the traditional polishing compound (wadi) was made from the ashes of midribs from kitul palm fronds, plus the ashes of burned rice husks. The ashes were cooked together in equal parts along with a trace of lime (CaCO3) to make fist-sized balls. The balls were burned for a few hours using rice shells, and then the ashy remains were partially dissolved in water. Several rounds were required to get the mixture down to the finest particles, which would then be used for polishing. Jayasinghe maintained that this ash-based compound produced a better polish than the finest diamond grit.
INTRODUCTION OF THE IMAHASHI MACHINE
The traditional Sri Lankan cutting machines started going out of fashion in the mid-1960s as new technology from Thailand and then Japan entered the country. A government-sponsored gem-cutting program was proposed in 1939¹, but it seems that official cutting classes were not offered until the early 1970s, when Badra Marapana started one at the Gem Bureau in Ratnapura. The class combined traditional Sri Lankan cutting methods that had developed over centuries⁹ with Japanese and European techniques¹³ in order to teach modern cutting methodology to a new generation of lapidaries.
The Japanese-made Imahashi machine was first introduced to the island by M. S. M. Hamza of Universal Gems, a leading gem dealer from Galle. He visited the Imahashi factory in Japan and saw the potential of using these machines in Sri Lanka. In 1976, with the help of the State Gem Corporation, the machines were placed in the Technical College of Ratnapura (Keerthi Jayasinghe, pers. comm. October 2017). Initially they were used only for training purposes, but subsequently a few individuals imported the machines for personal use. This style of machine had not been seen before in Sri Lanka. Its handpiece ‘faceter’ design descended from an older German company called EDUS (Figures 5a and 5b; Sandun Aponsu, pers. comm. September 2017). According to Keerthi Jayasinghe (pers. comm. October 2017), when it was introduced the Imahashi machine cost INR15,000 (£160), while the Graves machine from the USA cost around INR75,000 (£800).
By the time two groups of students had graduated from the Technical College, the demand for Imahashi machines began to grow. A government-funded institute called the National Youth Services Council established faceting schools in many districts around Sri Lanka. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a few cutters were already using imported machines such as those made by Graves, Ultratec and 3M, but for the most part it was a huge challenge for these new types of motor-driven machines to become accepted in Sri Lanka (Keerthi Jayasinghe, pers. comm. October 2017). The dealers strongly believed that the motorized machines unnecessarily wasted weight during cutting, and that the polish was not as good as that produced with the bannku opa pattalaya. The adherence to traditional beliefs was noted 40 years earlier when the Sub-Committee of the Executive Committee of Labour, Industry and Commerce reported that ‘there is an inherent prejudice towards new innovations however efficient they may be’¹. During this transitional period, a lot of education was needed within the gem community to convince people about the precision and efficiency of the modern machines (Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. April 2017). As the demand for what became known as ‘machine cut’ stones increased, and older members of the gem trade retired, a new generation of gem cutters adopted the motorized machines. These younger cutters knew little about the old ways of cutting and polishing, including the aversion to motor-driven machines.
In the late 1970s, Thai-style machines (Figure 6a) were brought to Sri Lanka by Thai gem dealers who were buying cheap Sri Lankan pale ‘geuda’ rough for heating into valuable blue sapphires (Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. April 2017). Some cutters, such as those around Beruwala, Ratnapura and Eheliyagoda, liked the Thai machines because they seemed good for retaining weight, meaning they could produce heavier and therefore more valuable gems. In general, though, the Thai machines never gained widespread traction in Sri Lanka. In some cases, the Thai machines were modified to use Imahashi-style handpieces, or they were replaced completely by Imahashi-style machines (Figure 6b).
MODERN CUTTING ERA
Innovations by Sterling Gems & Lapidary
In the suburb of Moratuwa, located 20 km south of Colombo, the family-run Sterling Gems & Lapidary company was started by Palitha Aponsu in 1982. The author visited the Aponsu family home and workshop in September 2017, and Palitha and his son Sandun related their role in introducing modern gem-cutting methods to Sri Lanka. Palitha’s father was the chief draftsman of the mechanical department in the local university. Palitha was an engineer by training who had studied gem cutting at the Gem Bureau in Ratnapura under Badra Marapana. He saw a photo of the Imahashi handpiece in the late 1970s and constructed a simplified version of it in 1979 under the name Serendib (Figure 7)(Sandun Aponsu, pers. comm. September 2017, July 2019). In 1984, Palitha began manufacturing several types of gem-cutting machines (e.g. Figure 7), which are now used throughout the world.
During the initial development of their machines, Sterling made various modifications and enhancements and then started mass production. The Sterling handpiece (Figure 5c) is lightweight and user-friendly, which makes it easier to retain a stone’s weight while cutting accurately. The design was simplified from the original Imahashi cam design to something that is easier to use and simpler to manufacture. When the machine first came out, it cost about half the price of the one imported from Imahashi, which made it an affordable option for local cutting factories (Sandun Aponsu, pers. comm. September 2017). In the 1980’s, Mr. Imahashi came to Sri Lanka and purchased one of the simplified Sterling handpieces from Universal Gems and took it back to Japan and made a copy of it which they now sell as the “Faceter P” as opposed to their “Faceter C” which has the original cam head for preforming (Sandun Aponsu, pers. comm. July 2019). This copy of a copy makes an interesting circular point in the machine designs as they bounce back and forth between Japan and Sri Lanka and says a lot about why there were never any copyright issues across companies.
The Sterling company continues to hand-make their machines with a crew of six part-time workers. They recycle as much aluminum as possible from local machine shops, car parts and any other source they can find. When they need more than the recycling market can provide, they buy new aluminum from a local source. In their casting factory, the aluminum is melted and poured into moulds to make their handpieces, faceter heads and machine bodies. The cast pieces are then moved to another building for cleaning, polishing, powder coating and final assembly. Sterling can average a complete faceting machine in a single day within their small workshop.
Innovations by Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works
The early 1980s marked the beginning of a mass technological change in Sri Lanka’s gem-cutting industry. An example of this was provided by Naji Sammoon, who ran a cutting factory in Hong Kong until it became too expensive for him to stay profitable there. He returned to Sri Lanka and started a new factory in Colombo. Sammoon first bought an Imahashi ‘Faceter C’ machine in 1982 from M. S. M. Hamza, who by then had become the director of Unique Gemstones, an Imahashi agent. Sammoon wanted to equip his factory with these machines, but they were too expensive to buy in large quantities. Furthermore, he felt the Imahashi handpiece was too complicated for the Sri Lankan cutting industry, so Sammoon gave one to Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works in Galle and asked the two brothers who ran the company, Aloysius and Bandu, to modify it for use in his factory (Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. April 2017). Bandu did the drawings and manufacturing for several variations of the handpiece, and the final design (Figure 8a) was modified to eliminate the oval cam movement and reduce its weight. In addition, the machine employed a rubber V-belt to connect the motor to the lap wheel, rather than the flat leather belt of the Thai-style devices. Both the motor and wheel were fixed on a small steel table (Figure 8b), and the machine was designed to use three laps: a diamond lap for cutting and two cast-iron laps for polishing, instead of the single large cast-iron lap used in the Thai machines (Bandu Wickramasingha, pers. comm. September 2018).
Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works made about six of the cutting machines for Sammoon over six months, all the while tweaking the design. Samoons’ factory quickly went into cutting production using the new Wickrama machines as well as some of the first-generation Sterling machines (Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. April 2017). Since the first machine was completed in 1980, Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works has continued to make various types of faceting machines for the Sri Lankan industry. By 1992, Aloysius left the faceting machine business and his brother Bandu took over as the sole leader of Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works, which now sells their machine under the company name Gem Lapidary (Bandu Wickramasingha, pers. comm. September 2018).
RAISING THE BAR ON CUTTING STANDARDS
Since 1980, redesigned cutting machines have become the main faceting implements in Sri Lanka. The author has visited a dozen different cutting workshops in Ratnapura and Beruwala, and every cutter was using these handpiece-based machines alongside a few hanaporuwas. In one shop, the hanaporuwa and handpiece cutters were sitting side-by-side, working together (Figure 9). The person on the handpiece machine would cut a stone and then hand it to the lapidary who would polish it on the hanaporuwa. This integration of old and new technology was a delightful surprise. Despite the fact that Sri Lankans can do every step of the cutting process on a single machine, they still choose to combine the best qualities of each type of machine to produce a high-quality product, while keeping relevant the older cutters with their different specialties⁸.
Because of this kind of innovation and ingenuity, Sri Lanka has risen to the top of the world’s commercial stone-cutting industry. The Sri Lankan cutters are able to quickly cut a well-proportioned stone, while maintaining a reasonable wage. The author’s research indicates that cutters in Thailand make about £1 for every carat they cut, whereas in Sri Lanka cutters make about £2 per carat (Naji Sammoon, pers. comm. April 2017). This means that a Sri Lankan cutter can theoretically spend a little more time per stone to ensure the cut quality is high.
In Sri Lanka, as well as in other commercial cutting countries, an important distinction is made between cutters and polishers. Insight on this was provided during a visit by the author to the family home of Hiflan Sala, reputedly one of the best cutting families in Beruwala. According to Hiflan, the job of the cutter is considered the more advanced skill. The cutter must be able to evaluate the shape of the rough and any mineral inclusions that it contains, and navigate around the inclusions to create a pleasing final form for the gemstone (Hiflan Sala, pers. comm. April 2017). Hiflan demonstrated his technique to the author by preforming a stone freehand on a Sri Lankan-made machine. He took an irregular rough ruby and turned it into a pleasing oval shape with a table, crown, pavilion, girdle and keel. As Hiflan worked, he spoke with pride about the skill of the preformers and cutters. His family preforms the rough and then cuts the facets into the stones. The stones are then sent to a polisher who makes the facets shine. In the author’s experience, the polishing process has its own challenges, but it takes a master to properly preform a stone, as Hiflan pointed out. Preforming is the hardest part of cutting a gemstone from rough starting material and has the greatest influence on a stone’s finished value.
It’s incredible to consider how recently the gem-cutting industry in Sri Lanka has changed. Nearly all of the technology in use today has been around for only the past 35 years or so. This shift in technology and the mentality accompanying it has enabled Sri Lanka to develop some of the best cutters in the world. Sri Lanka’s history with sapphires and rubies, and the steady rise in cutting quality has caused a lot of the faceting work to move from India and Thailand to Sri Lanka. Since the 1990s, many Sri Lankan cutting factories have transitioned into producing stones that meet the highest international cutting standards (e.g. Figures 1b and 10; ⁸), as opposed to the ‘native cuts’ they were known for in previous decades¹. They have even secured some precision-cutting work from Switzerland for its gem-encrusted watch industry (Ahmed Shareek, pers. comm. November 2017; ¹²). This is not surprising, considering how adaptable the people of Sri Lanka have proved to be and how active they are in the gem industry. Sri Lanka has one of the oldest relationships with gemstones, as well as a unique story within the world of gem cutting. As an industry, we can look forward to the next 2,000 years.
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Special thanks to the following people for answering my many questions, without whom I would not have been able to write this history: Sandun Aponsu and family (Sterling Gems & Lapidary, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka); Armil and Naji Sammoon and family (Sri Lanka Gem & Jewellery Association, Colombo, Sri Lanka); Bandu Wickramasingha (Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works, Galle, Sri Lanka); Muhammed Raihan, Hiflan Sala and families (Beruwala, Sri Lanka); Ahmed Shareek (Crescent Gems, Colombo, Sri Lanka); Keerthi Jayasinghe (Prima Gems Ltd, Arusha, Tanzania); Ika Dayananda (Squire Mech Engineering, Maharagama, Sri Lanka); Herathlage Sarath Chandrasiri (Yavorskyy Co. Ltd, Bangkok, Thailand); and Dmitry Petrochenkov (Russian State Geological Prospecting University, Moscow, Russia).
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 Tradingas well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.
If you are interested in supporting the work that I do and would like exclusive access to all the content that I create then please consider becoming my patron on Patreon!
If you enjoyed this article please check out some of my other gemstone and gemcutting related articles:
Five Hundred Years of Gem Cutting in the Mountains of Jura
Lapidaries on the Swiss/French Border: 1550–2017