Sri Lanka produces some the finest cat eye sapphires and rubies in the world as well as diamonds and pink, orange, yellow, white and honey-colored sapphires, alexandrines, aquamarines, tourmalines, spinel, topaz, and garnets. No red rubies are found in Sri Lanka but pink ones are. They are also called pinks sapphires. Sri Lanka also exports high-quality graphite, used in pencil lead and heat-resistant lubricants.

Rubies and sapphires are different colors of corundum, the crystalline form of aluminum oxide. Pure aluminum oxide is colorless, but very minute amounts of trace elements can create a wide variety of colors. Iron produces both green and yellow. A combination of chromium and iron creates orange. A combination of titanium and iron produces blue. A little bit of chromium causes pink. These are all sapphires. Rubies are corundum crystals that have enough chromium in them to be red. Star sapphires are sapphires with three sets of inclusions in different directions that produce the effect known as asterism — light reflected in intersecting bands.

Prof. P.G.R. Dharmaratne wrote: Sri Lanka is renowned for producing the finest and largest blue sapphires in the world, and also has the biggest variety of gems in the world, with 40 out of the 85 gemstones in existence found on the island. With the greatest concentration of gems on earth, Sri Lanka is ranked amongst the top 5 gem producing nations. Much of the country’s surface contains gemstone minerals ranging from Blue and Yellow Sapphires, Star Rubies and Star Sapphires, Pathparaja, Topaz, Amethyst, Garnet, Aquamarine, Moonstone, Alexandrites and Cat’s Eyes to name a few. [Source: Prof. P.G.R. Dharmaratne, Chairman, National Gem and Jewellery Authority, Lanka's Unexplored Gem Potential]

The famous but misnamed "Star of India" sapphire on display at the New York Museum of Natural History was unearthed in Sri Lanka. The 400-carat blue sapphire called the “Blue Belle” which adorns the British crown is also from Sri Lanka. The stunning 422.66-carat Siren of Serendip in the Houston Museum of Natural Science is another superb stunning example of a Sri Lankan sapphire. .Fred Ward wrote in National Geographic: "Sri Lanka's southern half two-thirdshas been blessed with a profusion of colored gemstones and some diamonds, all washed down from a core of central mountains. People find gems in their yards and fields, in streams, even on walkways after it rains." [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991 ╔ ]

The Facets Sri Lanka International Gem and Jewellery Show, sponsored by the Sri Lanka Gem Traders Association, held at the Exhibition and Convention centre of the BMICH in Colombo in September 2020, is a fairly big event. Traders from different parts of the world participate in this interact with buyers and sellers from Sri Lanka. All varieties of corundum are found in Sri Lanka including the “Padparadscha” which is unique to the island. Although Myanmar has produced finer qualities rubies and sapphires, Sri Lanka has produced these gems in larger sizes for longer periods of time.

History of Gems in Sri Lanka

The famous Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Raschid, the Duchess of Windsor, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana all possessed exquisite gemstones mined in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's mines are believed to have been the source of the jewels that Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba. In Arabian Nights , Sinbad said he visited the King of Ceylon "on the battlements of whose palace are a thousand jewels." Chinese traders described Sri Lankan gems the crystallized tears of the first men.

The Venetian traveller Marco Polo visited Sri Lanka in 1292. He wrote: "The island produces more beautiful and valuable rubies than are found in any other part of the world. Likewise sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets, and many other precious and costly stones. The king is supposed to possess one of the grandest rubies that ever was seen, being a span in length and the thickness of a man's arm, brilliant beyond description, and without a single flaw."

Traders and treasure hunters from all over the world were drawn to Sri Lanka for its gems and precious materials. Prof. P.G.R. Dharmaratne wrote: The historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa, records that gemstones were among the gifts of Sri Lanka's king, Devanampiyatissa, to Emperor Ashoka of India. The Mahavamsa also records that the Buddha visited Sri Lanka to settle a dispute between the Naga King Mahodera and Prince Chulodera over a throne studded with gemstones. The Buddhist monk, Fa-Hien, reports on the mineral abundance of the land when he visits Sri Lanka. [Source: Prof. P.G.R. Dharmaratne, Chairman, National Gem and Jewellery Authority, Lanka's Unexplored Gem Potential]

Ancient Gem Sites in Sri Lanka

The Mahawamsa provides us with the first record of a mine, in the 2nd century B.C., where of precious minerals and gems were obtained from in building the Maha Tupa of Anuradhapura in the reign of King Dutta Gamini. It reads: "In a north-easterly direction from the city, a distance of 3 yojanas and near Acaravithigama, on a plain covering 16 Karisars (of land) there appeared nuggets of gold of different sizes....On the east side of the city, a distance of seven yojanas, the further bank of the river and near Tambapitta, copper, appeared....In a south-easterly direction from the city four yojanas distant near the village of Sumanavapi many precious stones appeared....In a southerly direction from the city, at a distance of eight yojanas, silver appeared in the Ambatthakola-cave....In a westerly direction from the city, at a distance of five yojanas, near the landing place, Uruvela, pearls....In a northerly direction from the city, at a distance of seven yojanas, in a cave opening on the Pelivapitagama-tank, above on the sand, four splendid gems had formed in size like to a small mill-stone, in color like flax-flowers, (radiantly) beautiful.” [Source: A. Denis N. Fernando, Fellow National Academy of Science, Recipient of Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Medal 1999, Mahavansa translated by Wilhelm Geiger Chapter XXVIII p. 187 to 190]

A. Denis N. Fernando wrote: The location corresponds to: Gold near Kabitigollawa/Ranbewa, Copper near Tamankaduwa east of the Mahaweli Ganga, precious Gemstone near Elahera/Angamedilla, Silver near Ridi Vihara, Pearls in the Kalpity Bay, large bright Blue Gems like flax flowers near Vavunikulam. Most of these have been discovered except for gold and flax flower like gems. It would be interesting to note that in 1969 when I mentioned this in my Presidential Address for the Engineering Section of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science though this was not taken seriously by the Geologists, barely a year passed when the Geological Survey Department announced with acclaim that they had discovered Copper ore at Seruvila on the eastern side of the Mahaweli Ganga. In fact this was the very site stated in the Mahawamsa called "Tambapitta beyond the river (Mahaweli Ganga)".

Then there is the recording in the Mahawamsa of the war between two Naga Kings in Nagadipa over a Gem Set Throne in Nagadipa in the B.C. Period. Ptolemy has recorded Nagadipa in Eastern Ruhuna. While Ibn Batuta in 1340 on his pilgrimage to Adams Peak records the estuary of Rubies close to Ruwanwella/Kitulgala on his ascent along the Baba route, while on his return along the Mama route passing Balangoda and the terraced paddy fields records the valley of Rubies which correspond to Colambage Aru/Embilipitiya areas while on his way to Devinuwera.

Sri Lankan Gen Mining Areas

Ratnapura is Sri Lanka's oldest and most famous gem producing areas. Its name means “City of Rubies” or “City of Gems”. Located in Elehara District, it is particularly well known for producing large, high-quality specimens of many gems, including sapphire and cat’s eye chrysoberyl. The area around Morawaka is known for Alexandrite and Cat’s Eye Chrysoberyl. Nuwara Eliya, in the mountainous tea country, is another gem-producing area. Mining

Ratnapura (101 kilometers east of Colombo) has yielded a variety of gems, including sapphires, diamonds and rubies. Reportedly the source of the ruby that Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba, it has traditionally been the center of the Sri Lankan gem trade. There is nothing particularly nice about the town other than that its has many gem shops and some gem museums. Visitors can visit the mine pits and watch craftsmen at the gem cutting, polishing and jewelry-making workshops. Outside the town are rice paddies and forest full of gem pits filled with muddy water from which the gems are panned like gold. The gems have traditionally been found in the river beds and in shallow pits often no deeper than five meters (15 feet) below the surface. The Gem Museum has an exhibit on the mining process and displays of gems. The National Museum mostly contains fossils dug up in he gem pits.

The depth of the “illam” (gem gravel) varies from three meters to 20 meters to as much as 40 meters at Pelmadulla. Access to gem producing areas is often limited, especially during the monsoon seasons. When someone hits pay dirt, word quickly spreads and other miners and treasure hunters descend on the place and soon pits are dug everywhere. The pits are often dug close together with thin retaining walls between them. It is not uncommon for these walls to collapse and bury miners. Pits can be up to 16 meters (50 feet) deep. They are particularly dangerous at night to both humans and animals. Deserted pits, which collect standing water, serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes and have helped to spread malaria. [Source: gemlab]

Sri Lankan Sapphire Mining

The Sri Lankan gem industry has advantages over the gem industries in other nations because most the gems are found in shallow pits not open mines. What's more, a variety of different gem stones can be found in one pit. A typical gem pit in Sri Lanka is 45-feet deep and 15 feet square, with several stygian tunnels angling from it.

Mining in Sri Lanka is mainly alluvial with gem deposits found not only in present river systems but also below rice paddies where ancient rivers once flowed. At Ratnapura the gems are found in gravel at the bottom of mud pits as deep as 60 feet below the surrounding rice paddies. The gravel is hoisted out of the pits by the bucketful and taken to a nearby stream were the stones are washed and examined to see if any of them are gems.

Prospectors look for “illam”, seams of gravel-bearing stratum likely to hold gem stones, which are usually located in lowland areas such as river beds or valley bottoms. Illegal miners often dig pits in the jungle and then cover them with forest materials to avoid detection. These pits sometimes inadvertently trap or injure elephants or other wild animals.

In the 1980s, gems were Sri Lanka's third largest source of foreign exchange but by 1995, it was reduced to sixth. Gem exports in 1995 brought in $37 million compared to $42 million the year before. The Sri Lankan gem industry has been threatened by the discovery of a mother lodes of gem-bearing rock in Tanzania and Madagascar. Sri Lanka's mines are also starting to go dry.

Sri Lankan Sapphire Miners

The search for gems is a highly speculative operation and is usually carried out by a group of native workmen on a share basis, with 20 percent going to the owner of the land, 20 percent to the financier and the rest going to the workers. [Source:]

Sri Lankan miners ply their trade by digging pits, climbing through tunnels and scooping up gem-bearing gravel by hand much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. The gravel is loaded in wicker baskets and cranked to the surface. The gemstones are sifted from the gravel by roiling the baskets in a pond like 49ers panning gold. Underground some miners still work by candlelight.

The loin-clothed miners usually work in teams, with one group digging out the seam; someone operating a pump to keep water out of the pit; someone washing off the stones; and skilled gem finders looking through the gravel for gem stones. There is often someone who finances the whole operation. If gems are found the profits are divided among all those involved in the operation.

Many miners work seven days a week from dawn to dusk and sometimes go months without finding any valuable stones. One miner told Robert Paul Jordan of National Geographic, "I don't get tired. I'm used to it. In a week you may find something. Or, four...five...six months go by and you still have nothing.

According to gemlab: “Pits are normally worked by four workers, one to fill the baskets with “illam”, one to throw it to the top, one to catch it and one to take it to the washing area. ater is a big problem, especially with the high water table that some areas have. It must be constantly bailed or pumped out using petrol-operated pumps since by law, only the simplest of equipment is allowed in Sri Lanka. Only in areas slated to be submerged due to the construction of large dams for hydroelectric projects has the government allowed modern mining methods. Although the many restrictions have hindered the progress of the gem industry in Sri Lanka, it has provided prolonged employment for thousands of needy villagers. [Source: gemlab]

Sri Lankan Gem Business

Gem miners sell their stones to dealers, who sell the rough stones to cutter-polishers, who in turn sells the cut stones to wholesaler-retailers. Descendants of Muslim gem traders cut and polish the stones. The dealer-collectors are the ones who make the biggest profits. Cutters and polishers often use primitives tools and methods. Sri Lanka also has skilled jewlers who produce jewelry that meets the standards of the world’s top jewelry houses.

According to gemlab: “Once the gem gravel reaches the central washing area, it is emptied into deep conical baskets which are large enough to wash approximately 20 basketfuls of illam at a time. The art of washing is reminiscent of panning for gold with the water carrying the mud and lighter stones through the fine mesh and over the top of the basket. This leaves the heavier materials clean and concentrated at the bottom of the cone. [Source: gemlab]

The sorting is carried out by one who is an expert in the recognition of rough gems. First, the larger fine precious stones are removed (known as “jathi”) and given to the financier of the project for safekeeping. The residual (known as toura-mali) is handed to another man to ensure that nothing has been missed. The Sri Lankan gem gravels also produce zircon, tourmaline, peridot, quartz, garnet, feldspar and a number of other stones. Diamonds, opal, and emerald are not found on the island.

Ruby and Sapphire Business in Thailand

In the 1980s and 90s Thai gem dealers for all intents and purposes had a monopoly on the ruby and sapphire market. "In addition to cutting and marketing Myanmar's smuggled goods and their own rubies and sapphires, " wrote Ward, "Thais pay off both the Khmer Rouge and the Thai Army to allow them to mine in Cambodia, Exclusive contracts at first guaranteed that Thai dealers got Vietnam's new rubies. Traveling Thai buyers scoop up Australia's sapphires, either on the spot or by attempting to buy a miner's entire annual production. Long-standing contracts ensure that Sri Lanka's gems end up with the Thais. Only the miners in Montana resist exporting their sapphires."╔

Most of the gem factories are located in Bangkok and Chanthaburi. Sometimes the gems are sawed into angular geometric shapes but usually they are shaped into round, oval or octagonal shapes with diamond impregnated grinding wheels. They are then polished with extraordinarily fine diamond grit."

Thai cutters charge between 30 cents and two dollars a carat to process stones. Workers earn two to five dollars a day. Collectively they cut rubies and sapphires worth more than half a billion dollars a year."

To reach their position of dominance Ward wrote: "The Thais saw an opportunity and made the most of it. Gem dealers persuaded the government to drop important and export taxes to create a climate of growth. Then they systematically built a market to supply global buyers with a huge variety of polished stones and finished jewelry. Combined with luxury hotels and a nonstop entertainment district catering to very whim, the selling package is irresistible."╔

The Thais are not the most up front and honorable gem merchants that ever walked the planet. Some dealers label their Vietnamese stones as Burmese "ensuring and instant”and unwarranted “profit." Other convinced the Sri Lankans their colorless sapphires were worthless and bought the stones for 10 to 30 cents a carat and then heated them to brilliant blues and yellows that sold for thousands of dollars." " A Thai gem dealer told a socialist Tanzanian officials who was worried about outsiders profiting from his country's rubies and sapphires: "We never exploit the poor in the gem trade. We only exploit the rich."

Thais and the Sri Lankan Sapphire Market

In the 1980s Thai gem dealers convinced the Sri Lankans their colorless sapphires were worthless and bought the stones for 10 to 30 cents a carat. Later they heated the same stones to brilliant blues and yellows and sold them sold for thousands of dollars."

Later Sri Lanka withdrew Thai dealers exclusive buyer status for sapphires. One Sri Lankan official told National Geographic: "We have to get control of our own gems. That means buying furnaces and training people to heat, cut, and sell gems here instead of letting the Thais make all the value added profits." Such independence will prove very difficult as along as the Thais control the market."

A few years ago, according to one story, a prominent Bangkok gem dealer announced that he intended to heat treat sapphires in Sri Lanka. After learning that jealous dealers had taken out a contract on his life, he quickly dropped the project."

When the owner of an Australian mine said he wanted to open a cutting operation in Sri Lanka, the Thai buyers dropped the prices they paid for his sapphires 30 percent overnight. "I've been mining sapphires for 14 years," he said, and I'm almost out of business."╔

Pearls from Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan and Indian Ocean pearls have been famous since ancient times. Derrick Schokman wrote: The most abundant supplies like Rome's famous lapilla Indica in the first century came from the pearl banks or paars in the Gulf of Mannar in Sri Lanka via India. Sri Lanka is regularly mentioned as a source of pearls not only in Buddhist and Indian literature, but also by Greek and Roman writers since Megasthenes. The main market for Sri Lankan pearls was at Muzuris (Cragnagore) and Nelcynda (Kottyam) where specially fine specimens could be obtained.. [Source: Derrick Schokman]

Vimukthi Fernando wrote: The history of Sri Lankan pearl industry stretches to the period of King Vijaya” in the 6th century B.C. The A.D. 5th century “Mahawamsa notes him, sending his father-in-law, the Pandu King of India, "a shell pearl worth twice a hundred thousand (pieces of money)" at that time. Thereafter, it records King Devanampiyatissa, sending priceless treasures to King Asoka of India, including "eight kinds of pearls." And it was not only with India that Sri Lanka of ancient times traded in pearls. Megasthenes a Greek writer of the 4th century B.C., notes that "the island of Taprobane was more productive of gold and large pearls than the Indias." [Source: Vimukthi Fernando, 2002]

“The 'Southern Cross' a cluster of pearls in the shape of a cross which adorns the treasuries of Vatican. The Islamic caliphs used to wear the most exquisite crowns bejewelled with natural pearls. In Buddhist literature it is shown as one of the eight treasures, the heart of the Buddha and pure intentions. The 'Flaming Pearl' is recognised both by Buddhists and Hindus as the crystallisation of light, transcendent wisdom, spiritual consciousness and spiritual essence of the universe. It is known as the third eye of the Buddha as well as of Shiva. The Christian literature draws a simile between the kingdom of God and a priceless pearl. Hindu lasses wearing strings of pearls during the traditional rain dance as depicted in the painting.

“The colonial masters who ruled our country for 300 years exploited and made good use of the pearl resources in Sri Lanka. In fact, the profits from pearl fishery and the need of transporting the pearl harvest made the English open up a road from Anuradhapura to Arippu as early as 1833. And it was in the late 1800s that Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon made a special link with the western coasts of Australia, due to pearls. Thomas Bastian Ellies a Sri Lankan from Galle who migrated to Australia was a well known name in the history of the Western Australian pearling ports. Hailing from a family of jewellers, his experience and expertise was sought after by many a pearl trader of the times. The first Asian to own a fleet of pearl luggers, he became famous for his skill in pearl cleaning or skinning the pearls of blemishes and bringing out their true beauty.

Pearling in Sri Lanka in the Early 1900s

Derrick Schokman wrote: Fortunately for us, a graphic account by Leonard Woolf of "Village in the Jungle" fame gives us some idea of how these pearl fisheries were conducted. When Woolf was a "learner" government agent at the Jaffna kachcheri, he was asked to officiate at the government pearl fishery held at Marichchakuddu between February 20th and April 3rd 1906. [Source: Derrick Schokman]

Over 25,000 people from all over Asia attended that fishery. There were jewellery dealers, merchants, financiers, shop-keepers, dacoits, criminals shark charmers, and the star performers or divers who came from the Persian Gulf and India in sailing vessels (dhows) commanded by Sheiks. They were housed in a special town of timber and cadjan roof buildings, together with a police station, prison and hospital. A Superintendent of the Fishery, Assistant Superintendent of Police and three officers of the civil service from the Jaffna kachcheri were in overall supervision and conductance of the fishery.

A quote from Woolf's account is appropriate: "From the point of view of law and order nothing could have been more precariously dangerous than the Pearl Fishing Camp, a temporary town of 25,000 men, many of whom were habitual criminals. As the fishery went on, the town became fuller and fuller of a highly valuable form of property — pearls".

As the pearl banks were showing signs of being played out, the government sold its monopoly in pearling to a private company after the Marichchakuddu fishery in 1906. The new company which attempted to produce oysters artificially failed and went bust. What it failed to do has now become commonplace in the cultured pearl business of Japan and French Polynesia.

Pearl Divers in Sri Lanka in the Early 1900s

Derrick Schokman wrote: “There was the koddu, an enormous fenced area with nine open huts running from end to end. Each hut was divided into compartments, and each compartment into three sections. Two sections were meant for the government's share of oysters from each ship's collection every day, and the third for the divers.he signal to begin pearling everyday was given by the Superintendent who fired a gun at about 2 or 3 am. The dhows with the divers would then set sail for the paars, some of which were as far as 20 miles from the shore. [Source: Derrick Schokman]

“The divers were a superstitious lot who were afraid of shark attack, so the government employed shark-charmers to provide them with the necessary incantations to ensure their safety while on the job. Divers operated at an average depth of about 9 fathoms. They seldom remained underwater for more than one minute each time they dived, using a nose clip to hold their breath. To enable them to reach the seabed as quickly as possible, they would go down on a stone through which a rope was passed. When they needed to come up again for air, they would tug on the rope and be hauled up with the stone. The oysters they collected and put into a bucket would be hauled up at the same time.

“This went on all day until another gun fired by the Superintendent called the boats back. The collection of shells from each ship would be placed in one of the hut compartments in the koddu in three equal heaps. Two heaps would be the government's share and the other heap would go to the divers. At the auctions held each evening, the GA, Jaffna's representatives would oversee the government's share. The divers made their own deals.

Sri Lanka Granite and Mineral Sands

Sri Lanka is also known for its granite and mineral sands. A very hard, durable and elegant material, granite is not easy to come by as it comes from deep within the earth. Its character reflects the creative forces of nature — the patterns of each block of granite tell a story of gigantic pressures, the searing heat of the earth's core, and its violent birth in the volcanic eruptions of bygone millennia. Granite brings grace to the gardens, homes, palaces and temples of Sri Lanka's ancient royalty and add to them a timeless and lasting beauty that has survived for centuries.

Sri Lanka has four major types of granite deposits (granite proper, gneissose granite, regmatite and graphic granite) in substantial amounts, suitable for processing into cut and polished stones. The color, grain structure, hardness and strength of Sri Lankan granite is suitable for the international market. The stone is used as dimension stones, polished granite slabs and tiles, rough granite block, tomb stones, wall cladding, monuments and rock ornaments. The main markets are Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Italy, UK, Thailand and Belgium.

The highest levels of quality are maintained at all times and at every stage of manufacture, in order to ensure a consistently excellent product. This is done at two levels. Firstly, the function of the machines are automated to a great extent. Built-in maintainance systems and safeguards function constantly. Secondly, every stage is inspected visually with the aid of special calibration instruments.Ample resources of fresh rock are available and there is a fair selection of a variety of rock types. The rocks are accessible and in some places occur in boulder form. The quantities produced can definitely be enhanced and expanded in the future.

Mineral Sands including rutile, zircon, ilmanite. The main market is Japan: Composition: Rutile tio2 95 percent minimum, moisture 0.50 percent maximum; Zircon tio2 11.25 percent; Sio2 38.01 percent; Zro2 26.55; Ilmanite tio2 53 percent minimum; moisture 2 percent maximum; The resources based at Pulmoddai is replenished annually (15 percent) with the advent of the north-west monsoon season. Utilising around 150,000 tons per annum for an upgrading plant, the reserve can last for over 25 years. Four million tons of heavy mineral sands (grades of over 60 percent heavy mineral) are available in pulmoddai. This deposit rates among the best known in the world, especially due to its heavy mineral contents of between 60 percent to 70 percent.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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