Gem Industry in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon, Taprobane, Serendib, Pearl of the Indian Oceans and Ratna-Dweepa, is a country known for its traditions, culture and breathtaking greenery. For the majority, Ceylon is popular as the birthplace of exquisite and quality precious stones. Apart from the other countries with gem deposits, Sri Lankan gemstones are known for its unique color, clarity and its quality. Gem deposits enriched with varieties of gemstones can be found in many parts of the Island, especially, in Ratnapura (the Gem-city), which derived its name from its gifted gem deposits. Among precious stones such as Sapphires, Cats Eyes, Padparadschas, Aquamarines, Chrysoberyls, Moonstones, Garnets, Rubies, Alexandrite, Spinets and all other gemstones found on the island, The Blue Sapphire of Ceylon is under the spotlight as the best in the world, for its supreme quality and value. Sri Lanka also holds the honor of being the country to have mined the world’s largest blue sapphire, in January 2016, which weighed 1404.49cts.

Sri Lankan gem industry has a great history and it has been endorsed by legendary travelers, scholars, and gemologists such as Vasco de Gama, Ibn Battuta, Robert Knox and many others for its exquisite quality, uniqueness, and value. To point out a few, the great merchant and traveler Marco Polo once wrote: “I want you to understand that the Island of Ceylon is, for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams come rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst, and garnet.” Dr. Edward J. Gobelin, one of the world-renowned gemologists has mentioned “The Island of Ceylon was the world’s first source of Sapphires and remained the premier supplier of these gem-quality stones for centuries. No Sapphire in the world can equal that obtained in Sri Lanka”. The popularity of the Ceylon Blue Sapphire even broadened when a Ceylon Blue Sapphire was used in the Engagement Ring of the Royal Prince Charles and late Princess Diana. Furthermore, Precious stones of Ceylon can be found in Crowns, Museums, and Jewelry owned by Royal families throughout the world.

Sri Lankan gems derive its value not only from its unmatched quality; it is also nourished by the traditions and ethical values practiced in mining. The Sri Lankan National Gem and Jewellery Authority’s (NGJA) intervention has helped the industry sustain for generations. Through various legislations and regulatory requirements, the authorities have lead miners and mining companies to act in ways that it will protect and preserve the soil and other natural resources for the future generations. The regulations have promoted miners to use traditional environmental friendly mining techniques over the use of industrial machinery. Further, controls are imposed for the use of heavy machinery in mining. By doing so, the government aims to minimize the damage to nature and to promote employment. As a monitoring mechanism, a deposit is obtained from the license holder before the mining commences and it will be only returned if the mine is completely closed and returned the way it was found.

The localities with gem deposits such as Rathnapura, Balangoda are populated with low-middle income families; hence, this move has helped the government to maintain the employment level at a higher notch. Additionally, to uplift the standard of living of the miners and their families, the authorities have implemented accidental and disability compensation schemes, life insurance policies and educational scholarship programs for their children, etc. Another notable initiative by the authorities is the prohibition of issuing mining license to foreign companies and companies with foreign partners and investments, which will help safeguard local traditions in mining and prevent foreigners to exploit the natural resources of Sri Lanka. According to the Deputy Director-General of the NGJA, mining activities by foreign nationals and companies are considered to be a criminal offense and such incidents will be dealt with serious implications.

Traditional mining methods are being used for generations and only water pumps can be seen as machinery used in mining. There are four main traditional mining methods, namely, Pit Head Mining, Tunneling, River Bed Dredging and Surface Placer Mining. First two methods are considered as widely used in Sri Lanka, as compared to the latter.

The regulators also come into play in compensating for mining of gemstones. Gemstones and all other minerals mined in the country are considered to be a property of the government and any person exploiting gemstones from the surface or beneath the Sri Lankan soil would be found guilty in the eyes of the statutory law. The license should be obtained for any mining-related activities and the laws also give guidelines on how the consideration should be distributed among the parties involved in the extraction of gemstones. The system of distributing the share by the Sri Lankan government is unique in its own way and it states that the owner of the ground in which the mine is located to be eligible for a 20% share, the miner to be entitled for a share of 35%, the license holder of the mine to get a share of 10% and the balance 35% to be given to the financier who sponsors the operation. This practice has promoted mining activities as people with minable land, but no expertise or funds get the chance to benefit by renting the property for mining. Further, individuals or companies with funds, but no manpower or expertise could invest and get paid off in return. Most importantly, low-income families benefit the most from this practice as they do not have funds or land to do mining, but they are able to work for a mine and get compensated for their effort.

Gift of the Mother Nature, along with the efforts of the government and the best practices have blessed the Sri Lankan gem industry. However, trade of gemstones is correlated with the growth of the economy. Recessions and economic meltdowns in the recent past such as the Sub-prime crisis in the US, Ukraine crisis, the meltdown of certain European economies have mildly affected the trading activities of gemstones. However, with the gradual recovery of the US and the European economies, gem trading has started to pick up.