From time immemorial, Sri Lanka has been famous for gems and jewellery and it has a long traditional association with the international trade. Legends of Arabia, folk lore of China, India, Indonesia and tales of early European travelers to the east describe in great detail the fabulous gems of Ceylon. The art of jewellery making and Sri Lanka gem industry have been widely acclaimed in literary works dating as far back as 250 BC. Legend states it that king Soloman, wooed queen Sheba with gifts of priceless Sri Lankan gems and that throughout the ages Sri Lankan gems have adorned crowns and thrones and bedecked royalty the world over, including more recently, queen Victoria and princess Diana of Great Britain.
The gem mining is controlled and supervised by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri Lanka. Gems as a resource belong to the government, however license for mining could be obtained for privately owned lands.
Over several centuries, the gem industry has expanded through-out the island creating employment opportunities to several hundred thousand people not only mining but in allied fields such as supplying timber, water pumps, washing baskets etc. The development of private properties/personal resources associated with gem mining is clearly evident in popular mining areas such as Ratnapura, Pelmadulla, Kahawatte, Balangoda and Nivitigala etc. The evolution of mining techniques and machinery over the years clearly show that techniques of mining and processing in Sri Lanka though labour intensive, very efficient as compared with the gem industries in the other developing countries. The recovery of fine gems as small as one millimeter or less is assured though the techniques used are traditional. The extraction of gem gravel through digging pits and complicated well supported tunnels and internal pits is quite safe and efficient and that there is very little dilution or loss of gem gravel. The de-watering systems have been improved from the traditional Andia, a kind of balancing weight to help lift pales of water in shallow pits to winches in deep pits. During recent time de-watering is done by mechanical water pumps, the capacity of which varies according to the rate of water flow in to the pit.
Open Cast Mining (Shallow Deposits) In Sri Lanka, washing is done manually or using jigs. In developed countries in place of bulldozers, draglines, loaders and Heavy haulage trucks are used to excavate and transport gem bearing gravel to washing plants where initially gravel is fed through a grid iron to separate out large rocks followed by a revolving trammel for the initial break-up.
Dredging of River Beds
When placer deposits occur at the bottom of a shallow river, long handled memmoties, (a tradition carried on from ancient time) are still used to scoop up the gravel.
Gem Varieties of Sri Lanka
Today around 200 minerals have been classified as gemstones either due to their beauty, durability, rarity or a combination of some of these attributes which should be fulfilled to make a mineral worthy of being classified as a gem. Out of these gems, around 75 varieties have been mined or found in Sri Lanka. Although exploitation of Sri Lankan gem deposits has been going on for many centuries, it’s only in recent times that effort has been made to make a study of the industry itself, the locations of possible gem deposits and most importantly the types of gemstones found in the island.