The Modern History of Gemstone Faceting in Sri Lanka

ABSTRACT: Drawing on information provided by cutters, factory owners and machine manufacturers, this article traces the evolution of gem-cutting technology in Sri Lanka, from the use of traditional machines such as the hanaporuwa and the bannku opa pattalaya, to the birth of the modern cutting industry that started in the 1970s with the introduction of the Imahashi faceting machine from Japan. Modifications to its design by visionary Sri Lankan companies such as Bandu Wickrama Engineering Works and Sterling Gems & Lapidary provided further innovations that facilitated the introduction of affordable and precision-quality machines into commercial cutting facilities, leading to great improvements in the quality of gemstone faceting in Sri Lanka.

A lapidary polishes a stone with a bannku opa pattalaya machine, while an assistant turns the large wooden crank wheel. Photo courtesy of Ika Dayananda.

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 longer. Gemstones are deeply tied to Sri Lanka’s history, and the island is referenced in many historical texts, from Pliny in 77 AD to Marco Polo in ~1300 . 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’ . 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).

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…

The full article can be read in The Journal of Gemmology, 36(5), 2019, pp. 298–315, which can be found here: