Throughout history, Sri Lanka has been known as a land of gems and one of the major Gem market hub for trading many types of color gemstones. It is an accepted fact that many varieties of gems are found in Sri Lanka. There are over 200 varieties of Gemstones found in many parts of the World and about 70 varieties of them are known to be found in Sri Lanka ( Ceylon ). Sri Lanka has been synonymous with gems for centuries and the gem industry has been in existence for over 2500 years.
Marco Polo wrote of his visit in 1292: “I want you to understand that the island of Ceylon is, for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams comes rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst and garnet.” Little has changed since Marco Polo’s time
The island was known in the ancient world as Taprobane (copper colored in Greek). Native Veddahs, bathing in smooth flowing streams, noticed colored pebbles scattered in sandy bottoms. It was not until 500 B.C. that visiting Buddhists from northern India also discovered gems in the rivers and began to set rough stones into crude jewelry. They bartered stones with traders from abroad and eventually the treasure’s found their way to the marketplaces of Asia and Europe. Ancient Greek and Chinese historians referred to the beautiful gems of Ceylon, and King Solomon reportedly wooed the Queen of Sheba with Ceylonese precious stones.
Mining licenses in Sri Lanka are regulated by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA). Of the more than 6,500 licenses issued in 2013, more than 6,000 were for pit-mining operations using traditional methods. The remainder went to river and mechanized mining. Licensing for mechanized mining follows very strict guidelines,
Many of the trade and regulatory bodies in Sri Lanka are against large-scale gemstone mining. They consider traditional small-scale mines less harmful to the environment and a more stable source of employment for more people.
To give an idea of scale, the standard pit mine in Sri Lanka consists of a vertical shaft that measures two by four meters. If the pits are deep and in harder ground, the miners might dig a two by two meter square pit or a two-meter round pit. Depth can range up to 50 meters, though most pits are between 5 and 25 meters.
Ratnapura (Singhalese for ‘gem town’) lies about 100 kilometers southeast of Colombo. Its mining region has produced an incredible variety of gemstones, many of them outstanding in comparison with stones from other regions. Sapphire occurs in all hues of blue, as well as yellow, violet, green, pink, and the remarkable pinkish-orange “padparadsha.” Other gemstones include topaz in bright yellow with a reddish tinge; brownish yellow to cinnamon-colored grossular; orange-yellow spessartine; blood-red pyrope; red to brownish red almandine; the world’s finest zircon in a broad spectrum including brown, yellow, orange, green, and colorless (known locally as ‘Matara diamond’– a misnomer); green, yellow, and brown tourmaline; yellow, green, and brown chrysoberyl; yellow chrysoberyl cat’s-eye; the unique white translucent variety of microcline with a blue sheen known as moonstone; and great quantities of spinel in brown, green, blue, purple, violet, yellow, pink, and red. Unusual and rare stones from the same area include sillimanite, andalusite, scapolite, enstatite, kornerupine, diopside, and sinhalite. Recently a 5000-carat cat’s-eye chrysoberyl, the size of a man’s fist, was taken from a mine near Ratnapura.
The crown jewels of many monarchs gleam with extraordinary spinels, sapphires, and zircons mined from Sri Lanka streams. The Imperial Treasury of the Soviet Union houses a 400-carat red spinel of great beauty which was once given to Catherine the Great. The British Imperial Crown features a giant oval-cut spinel (previously supposed to be a ruby), known as the “Black Prince.” Crowns in the Green Vaults of Dresden are covered with sapphires from Sri Lanka.