Gem Mining in Sri Lanka
by Neelanjana Ghosh
Sri Lanka very rightly known as the “Jewel Box” in the Indian Ocean is a treasure trove of unending collection of precious gems, and is one of the major hubs of gem mining in the world. The beautiful island in the shape of a pear is also famous for its tea and rubber plantations as well as for gem mines and alluvial gem gravels that have been producing the best quality gems for centuries.
According to geological history, gemstones were discovered in this charming island not prior to 500 B.C. During this period the Buddhists who traveled to Sri Lanka from Northern India found some precious gems while taking their bath in the streams and rivers of this island. The erosion of the rocks resulted to elongated placer deposits laden with precious gemstones in the beds of the flowing streams in the valleys which were located in the lower altitudes. The monks set these attractive colorful stones in their rings and other forms of jewellery like bracelets and armlets frequently worn during those days. During the course of their travels they traded these stones in the different markets of Asia and Europe. In this manner the gemstones reached new destinations in different parts of the globe.
Actually gemstones in Sri Lanka originated from the Highland Series, which is a broad belt that cuts across the centre of this pear shaped island. This belt has its edges in the shape of a trough and is bordered by mountain peaks. The trough which has components of crystalline metamorphosed rock along with schist, marble, pegmatite and quartzite deposits erodes and results in the formation of gemstones along the beds of rivers and streams in the valleys through which they flow. Miners soon came to know about the rich blue and yellow clay ‘illiam’ which was underneath the surface of the lush green farmlands. Excavating to a depth of 30 meters, ancient streams rich with gemstones could be discovered. However, mining caused some damage to the agriculture of Sri Lanka as most of the ancient streams were beneath cultivated fields, causing a conflict between miners and farmers in those early days.
As time passed, new mining methods were discovered which did not hamper the cultivation of crops and the farmlands remained untouched. With advanced technology a vertical shaft was protruded until it reached the illiam. Feeder tunnels were built and were supported by timbers of wood and bamboo. The miners dug the tunnels and loaded their knapsacks with the precious gravel as made their way to the surface. Pumps operated full-time to keep the tunnels water free. The process of washing, screening and sorting took place on the surface, once the miner climbed up.
Interesting mythical stories state that King Solomon was so impressed with the gems of Ceylon, that he gifted Queen of Sheba these gemstones to woo her. It is also known that the Imperial Treasury of the Soviet Union prides itself of a beautiful red spinel from Sri Lanka, weighing around 400 carats. A giant oval-cut spinel also known as the “Black Prince’s ruby” is studded in the British Imperial Crown. The Ceylonese sapphires are also randomly featured in the Crowns which are there in the Green Vaults of Dresden.
Many more precious and beautiful gems await discovery in this charming island country and it is expected that the jewel trove of Sri Lanka will gift the world of gemstones with many more wonders in the years to come.