I fell in love with sapphires in Sri Lanka.
In 2015 Jay and I set off to the island of Sri Lanka with one mission in mind: to learn about her sapphires, and bring some home. Well kind of. We were also wont to languish on her tropical beaches, soak in her rich cultural history and cultivate enduring relationships with her locals. Our version of gem hunting is not as inflated with time constraints and manufactured danger as is Ron le Blanc’s Gem Hunt television show, although ours are always full of intrigue, adventure and many beautiful gemstones.
Long before the British named it Ceylon, Sri Lanka was known as ‘Rathna Deepa’, translated to island of gems. Her gem lore stretches back at least three thousand years to the days of King Solomon. For an island only 432 kilometers at its longest and 224 at its widest, Sri Lanka is one of the most prolific gem producing nations in the world. Her moonstones have a unique blue tinge, her garnets are spectacular, as are her spinel, tourmaline, aquamarine and zircon. She even produces rubies. But it is for her sapphires she is best known.
Skip three years ahead to our third visit by which time we were travelling solo in our own hired tuk-tuk with many friends to visit, both gem-dealers and the various locals we had met and stayed with on our previous travels. While most cities and towns will have some trace of its rich gemstone history on display, there are two main sapphire markets on the island.
The most accessible can be found at China Fort, part of the town of Beruwala on Sri Lanka’s south-western coast. This market is more formal, where we engage the services of a broker whose air-conditioned office we use to see the hundreds of gem dealers who have come from the mines with their sapphires, crowding the doorway in their turn to present their wares. Here one can learn plenty about sapphires.
Firstly, that apart from the well-known blue, they come in a vast array of colours – violet, yellow, orange, pink and purple and many hues in between. Just not red. For a red sapphire is a ruby. Sapphire and ruby are both from the mineral family of corundum composed of only aluminum and oxygen, and is colourless in its purest and rarest form. When miniscule trace elements of iron and titanium are present blue sapphire has formed. Chromium causes the red in ruby, and the combination and concentration of these all the other colours in between. One also learns that sapphires can reflect a star effect known as asterism. This occurs as a reflection of white light from oriented needle-like inclusions.
But one of the most important things one learns is the difference between natural and heated stones. Heat treatment is used to give the stone a better colour, remove colour zoning and enhance clarity. Many different stones are treated with heat. Some like citrine and Tanzanite would not exist in any meaningful quantity if amethyst and zoisite were not heat-treated, so that it has become general industry practice not to disclose those treatments. Sapphires, however, are found and sold in their natural state – rare, sought-after and well more expensive than treated stones. But many poorer quality stones do get the treatment, lest they end up in the industrial corundum market for emery boards and other abrasive compounds. Treatments can also vary from heat, chemical flux fillings or beryllium diffusion. Sitting at the market looking at hundreds of sapphires every day one can soon tell the difference in the faked enhanced colour, and those stones that have come naturally from the ground. It is essential to ascertain any treatments when buying a sapphire as it dramatically affects price and investment value. While even cutting a crystal or rock into a faceted gemstone is considered enhancement, Jay has always strived to selling only natural stones, as unaffected as possible after they have left the earth. The market at China-Fort not only showed us the fluctuating quality and tendency to alter the natural true colour of the stone, but also the distinct variance in prices according to natural beauty.
The second sapphire market is in a town called Ratnapura (City of Gems), a 93 kilometer, three hour tuk-tuk drive over the mountains north-east of Beruwala. Arriving in the rain at the start of the monsoon season we got a first hand account of just how sapphires make their way from the inaccessible peaks around Ratnapura onto the market. Where yesterday were roads and clear footpaths, the next day was flooded with torrential rain. Here one learns of the alluvial nature of the sapphire. They were formed under high temperatures and pressures underground in igneous rock released above earth in the form of molten lava, but in corundum’s case these crystals spent millions of years cooling in perfect conditions, that is free of the ever-present mineral, silicon. And as these sapphire-rich igneous rocks were thrust into the unapproachable peaks of the Ratnapura skyline millions of years ago, so each monsoon raining season slowly erodes these crystals from the peaks, naturally tumbling them along a mass of rivulets on their way to the stronger flowing rivers from where they are sifted by the local miners, and dug from shallow mines in the valleys surrounding Ratnapura.
The market in Ratnapura is a less formal affair, taking place on certain days in the main square of the dusty little town with no air-conditioning and a few pop-up booth offices. On other days there are a multitude of offices one can visit, and with a proper broker we have been taken across the countryside to visit sapphire dealers at their private homes. Here one can learn about and see some pretty serious stones at some really serious prices. Then there are the scouts that latch onto any tourist that enters town hoping to be the first to dupe them out of a quick buck for shiny things. Ratnapura has few tourist amenities as the majority of visitors are only interested in the gems. Through some thorough research and reliable contacts we were able to hook up with one of the most venerable gemstone gurus of the town, and stayed at his guest house, Ratna Gems Halt. Here Ratna, or Jayarathna Watadeniya, and his son-in-law, Lasantha, offer everything from assisted tours to the gem market, cutting courses and everything sapphire to both novices and professionals alike. I cannot stress enough that we would never recommend approaching a professional gemstone market as a novice by oneself. The rogues will spot you first and have their go at you, and if you make it through that you will be delivered to the legitimate businessman who will sum you up in the seconds they consider that unsold worthless stock in the bottom drawer. Jay, with more than three decades of experience will rarely, if ever, buy at these markets without a trusted broker or contact, relationships which take years to forge. Yet this advice clearly does not pertain to those informal markets at the side of the road in Namibia and the Northern Cape where great bargains can be had while supporting the community.
We never feel we have left a place with enough stones, but always feel that unfinished business will hasten a return. As discussed with sapphire’s half-sister, ruby, corundum comes in at 9 on Moh’s Hardness Scale, second only to diamond. So yes, it is an ideal alternative for an engagement ring, as was made most famous and popular by the late Princess Diana’s engagement ring (now adorning her son’s wife, Kate Middleton’s finger); a 12 carat blue sapphire from Sri Lanka. We have plenty of good quality natural Sri Lanka sapphire, as well as beautiful faceted stones and cabochon stars from the other major producing sapphire sources like Myanmar, Madagascar, Vietnam, Afghanistan, India and Tanzania. We have one sapphire crystal on our website pictured below with a link in the caption, and we would also like to introduce you to our new pendant page, which is a selection of pendants (pictured below with links in caption) Jay has collected from rough and formed in her studio at home.
Keep it safe for a little while longer,
JD and Jay