On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, our group of four women must have been the equivalent of herding hyper cats.
“One more gem shop!” we’d chorus every time we passed another glittering tray of sapphires, rubies, and topazes. It’s hard not to be distracted. Gem shops exist seemingly every few feet in Sri Lanka’s large cities like Colombo, and even in the smaller cities, like Galle. Each time we’d cry out to shop, our patient local guide, Ashoka shook his head, smiled, and acquiesced.
Sri Lanka in Sanskrit translates to “resplendent land”—a nod to its sparkling blue waters, dazzling wildlife, and towering palms. The moniker is also a reference to the nation’s abundant, ancient gem mines. Sapphires, as well as rubies, tourmalines, garnets, and more, made Sri Lanka a popular destination for traders even as early as the 4th and 5th centuries. The world’s largest blue sapphire was found here in 2015. Still in its original, uncut form, the gem weighs an astonishing 1,404 carats and is valued at over $300-million (U.S.).
But mining is not the only booming industry in Sri Lanka. The New York Times named the country in its article on the “52 Places to Go in 2016”, and in response tourism is on the upswing. We sat down with Ashoka Dissanayaka, luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent’s resident tour guide for Sri Lanka, to discuss travelling there for gemstones. After all, all that glitters is not gold (or sapphire), so you had best know what you’re getting into.
What are the best towns to shop for and buy gemstones in Sri Lanka?
Gems are mostly found in Ratnapura district (the City of Gems), but [the] main gem trade center is in Kandy. There are [a] wide range of reputed gem shops and lapidary in Kandy. Therefore, Kandy is the best place, but there are [a] lot of small gem shops spread all over the tourist areas and hotels in Sri Lanka. For example, in Galle, Colombo, and Bentota. Most of these small shops do not sell genuine stones. To get a license as [a] reputed shop, they have to submit [a] lot of requirements to the authorities.
So, we should be extra careful when buying gemstones in Sri Lanka?
Yes. We must be careful when buying because there are some heat-treated and fake stones in the market.
How do you know if a place is a reputable dealer? Is there a ranking system or some sort of way to tell where to buy them?
There are some reputable places which were recommended by Sri Lanka’s National Gem & Jewellery Authority. They have [the ability to issue] a license to sell gems, and they are responsible for giving an international money back guarantee certificate for every purchase.
Are there any gem shows during the year?
Once a year in September, the National Gems & Jewellery Authority holds a fair and exhibition at B.M.I.C.H [Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall] in Colombo. Lots of buyers come there to buy gems.
Are the people who mine the gemstones treated fairly? Are there ways to make sure we are buying ethical gemstones and people are getting a fair wage and price?
The people who work in the gem mines are also the shareholders for gems. When they find a valuable gem, it is divided among all the labourers. It’s a good benefit for them.
Sri Lanka is known worldwide for sapphires, but can you tell us about some of the other common stones people come to shop for here?
Our common high-quality precious and semi-precious gemstones are sapphires, star sapphires, rubies, star rubies, alexandrite, cat’s eye, garnets, zircons, tourmalines, and spinels.
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