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Sri Lanka: Land Of Gemstones

| 17 min read

The tropical island of Sri Lanka lies off the southeast coast of India, hanging down into the ocean like a Pearl around the neck of the Indian subcontinent. With the rising and falling of the seas, geologists believe that Sri Lanka has been joined to India for at least 700,000 of the last 1 million years. Sri Lanka is a very old island, and some of the rocks here date back over 2.4 billion years. Continental drift has seen the landmass face a colossal journey to get to where it is today.

Around 300 million years ago, all the lands were joined together as one gigantic super-continent, known as Pangea. At this time, Sri Lanka was squashed between Madagascar, Mozambique, India and Antarctica and was very much in the southern hemisphere. With such distinguished ex-neighbors and after an extraordinary geological journey, it’s no wonder Sri Lanka has been blessed with some of the most beautiful gemstones on the planet.

Sri Lanka Journey Map

To put Sri Lanka’s size into context, this magnificent place is a little smaller than Ireland and is the 25th biggest island in the world. Unlike Madagascar, another gem-rich island where gemstones can be found from the northern tip down to the southern coast, most of the gems on Sri Lanka are concentrated into a relatively small area. This sits in the southwest corner of the country, with only small, sporadic finds occasionally found elsewhere. Known until 1972 as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a beautiful land full of color, character and charm which we’re going to explore a little more over the coming pages.

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, Amethysts and Garnets. Marco Polo, 1292

We begin our virtual tour of Sri Lanka in the fascinating southern city of Galle [1], featuring a distinctive lighthouse and fort, which is surrounded by the sea on three sides. The story of this World Heritage site is evident in the remarkable range of architecture on display. Galle has been a significant port and trading post since at least 1400 BC when much of the cinnamon exported from Sri Lanka passed through Galle. The city as it stands today has its roots in the 1500s when the Portuguese first arrived here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese around 1640 AD and built the current fort in the 1660s before it became part of the British Empire in 1796.

One of the most distinctive buildings in the fort is the grand All Saints’ Church, which was built between 1868 and 1871 in a Victorian Gothic Revival style. The fort area of Galle is only the southernmost tip of the city, and exploring further north into the new town will reveal even more of the character of the area. Among the fish stalls and fruit traders, you may even find a gemstone market selling fine Sapphire and Garnet gems that have often been mined on the island. Buyer beware though, it's not uncommon for these stones to have been sourced from other countries! Galle is very friendly to tourists, and there are numerous hotels, restaurants and museums to visit.

The Lighthouse in Galle

From Galle, we head up the west coast of Sri Lanka on our way to the capital city of Colombo. The equatorial climate of southwestern Sri Lanka is illustrated beautifully along the well-paved A2 road that takes us north. Idyllic tropical beaches and glorious palm trees line the route as we make a short stop in Beruwala [2], which lies about halfway along the 75-mile route between our starting point and Sri Lanka’s biggest city. In gemological circles, the China Fort Road that runs east to west through central Beruwala is world renowned for its large concentration of gemstone buyers and sellers. Many a Gemporia deal has been done on this bustling half-mile stretch of road, and its side streets. The finest rough and cut gems from Ratnapura (which we’ll visit later on) can be found here, along with Aquamarines and Sapphires from Balangoda and Elahara, and exquisite Moonstones from Matale. This trading village has been an important part of Sri Lanka’s gemstone industry for hundreds of years. Beruwala is also a fishing port, characterized by the colorful boats that lie in the harbour and the busy fish market nearby. This brings us back to our journey north and to the coastal A2 road that soon delivers us to Colombo [3].

Colombo became the capital city of Sri Lanka in 1815 while the island was still part of the British Empire, and remained so until 1982, but its history dates back much further. Around 500 AD the area first became a significant trading port between the east and the west, particularly, like in Galle, for cinnamon, which used to be grown nearby in the Cinnamon Gardens area of the city. Former British colonial rule is in evidence in the many buildings that survive from this era, and you’ll be surprised just how many familiar red post boxes are still in use all over the island.

Colombo

Colombo is a fascinating mix of the old and the new, where traditional buildings sit side by side with much newer constructions. Since the end of the quarter-century-long civil war in May 2009, significant outside investment has been made in the area, particularly by China and India. Areas of the city are slowly succumbing to modernization, though there is still a lot of history to be enjoyed. The Seema Malakaya Meditation Center, which sits on the shores of Lake Beira in the center of the old town, is well worth a visit, along with the aforementioned Cinnamon Gardens. You'll also find Sri Lanka’s National Museum in this area. The huge Pettah Market offers up a bewildering amount of goods, and the unique floating stalls in the southern market area must not be missed.

Gemstone hunters will not be left disappointed if they venture just a little way west from the main Pettah area. This area is known as Fort and is filled with gemstone and jewelry shops. It also houses the President of Sri Lanka’s official residence and office. The center of the Sri Lanka train network is also nearby. You could spend a week here and only see a fraction of what the city has to offer. Heading south out of Colombo and then turning east onto the A8, we now take the road to Ratnapura. As we make our way 60 miles inland, it’s worth discussing a little more of Sri Lanka’s history, and noting how vital a role Sri Lanka has played in the global trading of gemstones. The city to which we now travel takes its name directly from the part it has played in Sri Lanka's gemstone history. ‘Ratnapura’ is the Sanskrit word for ‘City of Gems’ and indeed the whole island was once known colloquially as ‘Ratna Dweepa’ which means ‘Gemstone Island’. Sri Lanka’s place in this remarkable trade was not only secured by the phenomenal quality of the stones that formed here, but also by its pivotal location on the world map. Gemstones have been traded by passing sailors since at least the 5th century, although global trade routes had included Sri Lanka from as far back as 1500 BC when the first cinnamon exports made their way to Ancient Egypt. Sapphires have been found here for at least 2,000 years, often displaying the finest cornflower blue color, the very best of which are still known today as Ceylon Sapphires. Ceylon Sapphire is normally lighter in tone than those found in Thailand, Australia and China, and the only other Sapphires that come close to matching the quality of those from Sri Lanka are found in Kashmir, in the northern part of India.

British voyager Robert Knox told stories of the array of different colored gemstones and spices he had seen on the island.

The famous Portuguese explorer Lourenço de Almeida was the first European to discover the island in 1505, where he found several warring factions that were so distracted by each other that they were unable to fend off an attack from outsiders. By 1517 he had built a port in Colombo, and the indigenous Sinhalese people were forced to move more and more inland. They eventually built a city in the central region, which is known today as Kandy (more on which later), that offered them a more secure and defendable position. In 1602 Dutch explorer Joris van Spilbergen landed on the island, and the king of Kandy desperately sought his help to fight off the Portuguese. By 1660, after years of ongoing battles, the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese and returned the land back to its indigenous peoples, in return for a treaty that gave them a monopoly over all exports from the island. In 1659, British voyager Robert Knox was forced to detour to the island after his ship lost its mast in a bad storm. He landed on the island along with 15 of his crew and was immediately captured and imprisoned. Some 19 years later, along with one of his crew, he managed to escape. On his return to the UK, which itself took over a year, he told stories of the array of different colored gemstones and spices he had seen on the island.

Sri Lanka Mining

In 1796 the British invaded, at first capturing coastal locations, though it took until 1815 for them to seize the fortified city of Kandy and to claim the entire island as part of the British Empire. Very quickly the British planted large coffee, tea and rubber plantations, centered around Kandy in the heart of the island. To this day, tea is the largest single export from Sri Lanka, making up around 15% of total goods shipped. During World War II, the British used the harbors of Colombo as a base to organize the military in preparation for battle against the Japanese, but on April 5th 1942, Japanese warships destroyed many of the British boats as they lay at anchor. In 1948, after the war had ended, the island finally received its independence. Over the centuries, Sri Lanka has surrendered some of the finest Sapphire gemstones ever discovered, including the 563 carat Star of India that now resides in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the 423 carat Logan Sapphire. Princess Diana’s famous engagement ring, which now sits on the hand of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is a stunning 12 carat Ceylon Sapphire surrounded by Diamonds. Which brings us on rather nicely to their place of origination.

Beautiful Sapphire, Ruby and Amethyst gems came to rest in Sri Lanka's stream beds, and were also joined by Garnet, Moonstone, Spinel, Topaz, Zircon and Tourmaline.

Ratnapura [4] and the surrounding areas are the beating heart of Sri Lanka’s gemstone industry. But don’t expect to find any huge digging machines, giant open pits or vast, deep mines. Mining here is done in much the same way as it has been for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Mines are small and artisanally built with hand tools, passed-down skills and great patience. You may spot the odd bit of modern technology – a generator sending electricity into the mine or a pump sucking water out – but other than that the methods used here are remarkably traditional. There’s a simple reason that the vast majority of Sri Lanka’s precious stones are found in this one area in the south-west, and it’s all to do with geology. Sri Lanka is a mostly flat island in the north and around its coastline, with all the mountains found in the southern central part of the island. The lowlands of the Ratnapura area are surrounded on three sides by higher ground, which is why it is such a hotbed of gemstone activity. Mother Nature created gemstones deep under the ground, and over millions of years, mountains began to rise up out of the flat land as tectonic movement pushed and squeezed the land. As the mountains rose, so too did the gemstones beneath them, and then erosion took over. As the rains slowly ate away at the rocks, gems were exposed and freed, and found their way into streams and rivers, which carried the newly liberated stones down into the foothills. Beautiful Sapphire, Ruby and Amethyst gems came to rest in these stream beds, and were also joined by Garnet, Moonstone, Spinel, Topaz, Zircon and Tourmaline.

Ratnapura in Sri Lanka

As these riverbeds dried up, the gemstones were covered by dust and soil and time imprisoned them underground. When the era of humankind dawned, we started to take notice of these small colorful stones that had been pushed to the surface by a tree root or found by chance while foraging. Eventually, we just started digging. The Ratnapura region essentially acted as a large bowl to collect these stones that tumbled down the mountains, which is why to this day it is the gem-mining center of the whole country. This entire process is known as alluvial mining. The word ‘alluvial’ itself describes soils that consist of earth and sand that were once underwater on flooded land or at the bottom of river and stream beds. Gemstones are generally found between five and 50 meters underground, and the vast majority of mines follow the same time-honored technique. First, a vertical shaft is dug down into the earth with the miners looking for the telltale gravels that suggest an ancient riverbed may have been found. Once this level is reached, horizontal tunnels are dug out from this central point not unlike how the spokes on a bicycle wheel dart out from the middle. The mined dirt that comes out of the tunnels is lifted to the surface. Here, it is all slowly and carefully panned in baskets using water, not unlike panning for gold in a river. The water wears away all the mud and dirt, leaving behind just stones, and maybe just occasionally one of these rocks will be a colorful, precious gem.

The miners of today work in harmony with the local farmers, and once all the spokes become mined out, the shafts are refilled with soil. All of the equipment and temporary surface buildings are removed too, and the farmers move back onto the land and replant their crops, which is often tea. The miners will find a new spot and start the whole process again. Many of the rough gemstones that are found in Ratnapura are cut here too, often using traditional methods. If you’d like to climb one of the mountains that pushed these gemstones up from the deep, Ratnapura is a good base from which to scale Adam’s Peak. The mountain tops out at 2,243 meters and offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape. If you’d rather keep your feet in the foothills, head to the nearby Batadombalena cave, which features ancient art and archaeological evidence that dates back as far as 8,000 BC. The main city also features a gemological museum and plenty of opportunities to buy gemstones mined and cut in the local area.

Ella in Sri Lanka

As we leave the City of Gems in our wake and begin our journey to Sri Lanka’s cultural center in Kandy, we first head east on a short detour to Ella [5] to take in some of the country’s incredible nature, stunning rolling scenery and to see what life on this beautiful island is like away from the big cities. Ella is a small mountain village, but there are good places to stay with exceptional local food and plenty of sights and sounds to take in. The area is good for hiking, particularly up the nearby Little Adam’s Peak, so called for its resemblance to the mountain near Ratnapura but, at 1,141 meters, only half as high. The well-maintained path will help you climb to some of the most breathtaking views you could ever hope to take in.

Ella itself has plenty of quaint little shops and restaurants, and exploring the surrounding area more closely will reveal hidden waterfalls and cave temples full of intricate paintings. There is also a large tea factory that not only offers guided tours of the tea plantations in this area but will also show you the inside of the factory and the fascinating process the tea goes through on its route to the cup. Before we leave Ella, a visit to the Nine Arch Bridge is essential. It is one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful landmarks, where trains emerge out of a tunnel straight onto the magnificent viaduct itself, just before they reach Ella station. There’s possibly no finer way to end a trip to Sri Lanka than in Kandy, the cultural capital of the country, and there’s almost certainly no better way to get from Ella to Kandy than on the train. The journey has been described as one of the most scenic on the island and is an unmissable part of any trip here. The always-packed train takes a winding path through the deep countryside of Sri Lanka through the tea plantations and around some of Sri Lanka’s highest peaks. The train journey to Kandy is almost twice as long as the road trip at six hours, but with breathtaking views rolling past the windows for the entire duration, you won't want it to end.

Arriving in Kandy [6] is far from a disappointment though. History is everywhere in this relatively small city, which is Sri Lanka’s sixth largest by population. It was also the ancient capital of the island, and it was from here that Ceylon ceded to British control in 1815. When the European invasions of Sri Lanka began, many of the indigenous people moved inland to this fortified city, where they were able to keep the raiders at bay for a considerable number of years.

Kandy in Sri Lanka

The name Kandy is thought to derive from the Sinhalese ‘Kanda Uda Rata’ meaning ‘land on the mountain’, an accurate name for this elevated city that lies in the middle of Sri Lanka’s mountainous central region and main tea growing area. If you were only here briefly, the one place to visit would be the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, located on the shore of Lake Kandy in the center of the city. The temple is a World Heritage site (Sri Lanka has eight of these in total) and is one of the most sacred sites in the world for Buddhists. The incredible temple was completed in 1595 and houses a tooth said to have been taken from the funeral pyre of the Buddha in 543 BC. The wider complex is known as the Old Royal Palace and also houses the World Buddhist Museum and the Museum of Kandy, which tells the story of this phenomenal place through relics, architecture and art.

The incredible temple was completed in 1595 and houses a tooth said to have been taken from the funeral pyre of the Buddha in 543 BC.

Within walking distance of here is Lake Kandy itself, and the Udawattakele Forest Reserve, which sits on the old garden of the royal palace and is home to many beautiful plants and animals, some of which are endemic to Sri Lanka. Kandy’s main shopping street isn’t far from here, which affords visitors another chance to own some of Sri Lanka’s wonderful gems, among the various other wares on offer. Kandy is a good transport hub for those continuing their journey around this extraordinary island, but it’s here that we take our leave of Sri Lanka.

This incredible island has such a story to tell and is a sparkling jewel in the crown of the eastern hemisphere. Next time you gaze at your Ceylon Sapphire or any of the other world-class gemstones that originate in this remarkable place, take a moment to appreciate the part Sri Lanka has played in the gemstone industry of today.

To discover the gems discussed in this article, click below to start a gemstone journey of your own.

SRI LANKAN GEMSTONE