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September – December 2014

September 2014 Newsletter

Video still image
Why is this man not smiling? Last month, we asked a variation of this question, pointing to a streaming video of a harrowing journey to the Kashmir sapphire mines. This month, the state of Jammu and Kashmir is underwater. Above, a doctor in Srinigar laments the conditions in his hospital, which is without power and running out of medicine and other supplies. Our hearts go out to the people of India and Pakistan. Relief is being given by the IFRC.

Shows and Events

Pala International News

Gems and Gemology News

Industry News

Pala Presents

Shows and Events

Hong Kong Jewellery & Gem Fair: Sept. 15–21, 2014

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This month, 50,000 buyers from across the globe are descending on Hong Kong for the UMB Asia-sponsored Jewellery and Gem Fair. Exhibitors number more than 3,600, from 48 countries and regions.

Pala International's Gabrièl Mattice is in attendance, shopping on behalf of clients for that certain something.

The Fair takes place at two venues, slightly overlapping.

  • Raw Materials: Gemstones (including diamonds and pearls), equipment, and packaging – AsiaWorld-Expo, at Hong Kong International Airport, September 15–19
  • Fine Finished Jewelry – Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, September 17–21

Notable seminars include:

  • Screening for Treated and Synthetic Diamonds – A Review of Existing Technologies by Dr. Wuyi Wang, Director of Research & Development, GIA
  • Emerald 2014 – The Emerald Market and Mining Situation in Producing Countries by Dr. Dietmar Schwarz, formerly of the Gübelin Gem Lab, now Director at the Asian Institute of Gemmological Sciences (AIGS)
  • Launch of The Diamond Insight Report 2014 from The De Beers Group of Companies by Philippe Mellier, CEO, De Beers Group, and Stephen Lussier, Executive Vice President, Marketing, De Beers Group and CEO, Forevermark
  • The Facts of Ruby and Sapphire Trade by Thanong Leelawatanasuk, Chief of Gem Testing Department, GIT
  • Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector's Guide by Richard W. Hughes and Dream of the Red Chamber: The Internal World of Ruby by Hughes and Hpone-Phyo Kan-Nyunt
  • The Perception of Ruby & Sapphire Origins by Dr. Pornsawat Wathanakul, GIT Director
  • Mozambique Rubies – The New Star in The Market (Laboratory News) and A Trip to Mogok (Documentary Movie) by Dr. A. Peretti
  • Gemological Analytical Methods of the 21st Century by Sadarat Saeseaw, Senior Manager of Colored Stones, GIA, Thailand

Two conference/seminars take place on September 20, featuring illustrious presenters: AGIL-2014 International Gemmological Conference: The Natural Precious Gems is Forever and the GAHK Seminar, Fei Cui Heritage: Scientific Research and Professional Education. See the schedule for details. [back to top]

Mineralientage München 51st Munich Mineral Show:
October 24–26, 2014

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Pala International's Bill Larson and Will Larson will attend this year’s Munich Show.

When: October 24–26, 2014
Where: Munich Trade Fair Centre
Hours: 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM each day
   Friday, October 24 (Trade only)
   Saturday, October 26 and Sunday, October 27 (Trade and public)

Last year's show had the second highest attendance rate in the event's fifty-year history, according to organizers. This year's special theme is "Meteorites," including the demise of the dinosaurs. "Gifts from the Sky" will be examined, including their divine—or devilish—significance for various religions.

International Year of Crystallography logo image
The Munich Show observes UNESCO's International Year for 2014—Crystallography—with part 2 of the show's special exhibition on the history of mineral identification.

In Gemworld, for the second year, the Munich Show will highlight the work of recent graduates, in Young Designers' Corner. As well as being a showcase, this is a competion: three contestants will be awarded cash prizes as well as a free booth at Gemworld 2015.

For more information visit the show website. See the Pala International Show Schedule for future events.

Pala Ad image
See our ad in this year's program.

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Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection

Sixty jeweled objects from the private collection of Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani will be exhibited by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, titled "Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection," runs October 28 through January 25. The jewels will demonstrate the evolution of styles beginning with the 17th century of the Mughal period. The objects will be exhibited adjacent to Mughal-period artwork from the Met's own collection.

Turban Ornament photo image
Turban Ornament (Sarpesh), South India, Hyderabad, 1800–50. Gold; set with diamonds and suspended spinel beads of earlier date. Enamel on reverse. H: 18.5 cm, W: 27.2 cm. Al-Thani Collection. (Photo: © Prudence Cuming Associates)

From the exhibition press release:

Among the Mughal works will be an elegant jade dagger originally owned by two emperors—the hilt was made for [fourth Mughal emperor] Jahangir and it was re-bladed for his son Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. In the 19th century, the dagger was in the collection Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the Morse code. The hilt features a miniature sculpture—a European-style head.

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Finial from the Throne of Tipu Sultan, South India, Mysore, ca. 1790. Gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds; lac core. H. 2-3/4 in. (6.8 cm), W. 2-1/8 in. (5.4 cm), D 2-1/4 in. (5.5 cm). Al-Thani Collection. (Photo: © Prudence Cuming Associates)

The finial pictured above is a luxurious example of the technique known as kundan, in which a gem is set in a bed of gold, often with a foil backing to brighten its color.

Aigrette photo image
Aigrette. France, Paris, designed by Paul Iribe, made by Robert Linzeler, 1910. Platinum, set with emerald, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls. H. 3-5/8 in. (9 cm), W. 2-1/4 in. (5.6 cm), D. 5/8 in. (1.5 cm). Al-Thani Collection. (Photo: © Prudence Cuming Associates)

The aigrette shown above is remarkable because it mimics the plumage of the traditional turban ornament. Its center stone was carved in India during the last half of the 19th century.

Beyond Extravagance cover image
The exhibition will feature an accompanying catalog published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press. It draws on a prior study of the collection, Beyond Extravagance, edited by Amin Jaffer, published by Assouline.

It may surprise our readers (as it did your editor) to learn that Sheikh Hamad's collection was assembled relatively recently and quickly following his viewing of "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Courts" at the Victoria and Albert Museum during late 2009 and early 2010 (see our "Overdosing on Gems"). As explained by that show's creator, Amin Jaffer, with whom Sheikh Hamad toured the exhibition, "He fell in love with India and Indian jewelry and started collecting directly as a result." His collection "is unique," Jaffer says, "in that it starts in the 16th century and ends in the 21st century." Indeed, a centerpiece of recent vintage is the "Star of Golconda," a 57.31-carat diamond brooch, assumed to be Indian, created last year by Cartier.

According to Jaffer, the present exhibition, "Treasures from India," also will be mounted in Europe.

If you go…

Be sure to take in "Fabergé from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection," which is on view through November 27, 2016. Gray collected Fabergé when the name was unknown in the U.S., amassing one of the finest collections in the world.

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The West Coast has its own treasures. Above, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is publicized with eyecatching boulevard banners. The gem collection is the third most prominent in the country, after the National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo: Bill Larson)

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Pala International News

This month we feature an immaculate yellow sapphire. Properties reach the highest order on this fine jewel from Sri Lanka. Yellow sapphire has really taken off in the last couple of years as appreciation grows for varying colors of corundum. Along with popularity, prices and demand have continued their ascent as well.

Sapphire photo image
Natural yellow sapphire from Sri Lanka, 27.27 ct, 18.88 x 14.11 x 11.83 mm. It comes with an AGL brief. Inventory #19961. (Photo: Mia Dixon)

Finding that quintessential "diamond look" in a sapphire is at the heart of many a yellow sapphire quest. Yellow sapphires vary in color from slightly greenish yellow, to canary yellow to lemon yellow and on into golden and orangey yellows. This fine specimen hits on many levels, with its natural gold yellow color, precision oval brilliant cut, good clarity and brilliance. Not to mention an impressive size of 27.27 carats—a fine catch for any gem collector.

Interested? Select the inventory number above, call (phone numbers below) or email us to inquire. [back to top]

Gems and Gemology News

Lotus Gemology Takes Root

Lab to Specialize in Ruby, Sapphire

Following more than seventy years in a collective career that has taken them from several spots in Southeast and East Asia and Southern California, Richard W. Hughes and Wimon Manorotkul have taken root in Bangkok with a new venture: Lotus Gemology. It is the world's first gemological laboratory dedicated only to ruby and sapphire—with spinel included for good measure.

Gem Reports photo image
Lotus Standard Reports are offered in two varieties. The Silver Standard is a compact, four-page report that describes the stone, gives its identification and enhancements, and provides care instructions. The same are included in the Gold Standard, which is reserved only for unenhanced rubies, sapphires and spinels (other than cutting and polishing). "We have a vision that we don’t believe is being addressed by existing labs," Hughes stated in an announcement. "Our aim is to create reports that touch the heart, as well as the head." (Photo courtesy Lotus Gemology)

If this prestigious niche sets the lab apart, Lotus also strives to reflect the beauty of fine ruby and sapphire with an exceptional report presentation, as illustrated above and below. "Gemology is not simply counting atoms," Hughes stated in an announcement. "Science cannot explain or test certain phenomena. Which rainbow is the prettiest, what song speaks to you, which person is most attractive? These are personal choices that can never be reduced to a simple set of measurements."

Gem Report photo image
The Lotus Solid Gold Report, pictured above, is devoted only to unenhanced gemstones (other than cutting and polishing). The 15+ page hardcover report is augmented with color photographs and maps. One gemstone dealer, impressed with the reports, declared, "These reports will help me close sales." (Photo courtesy Lotus Gemology)

As noted above, Richard Hughes will present at the Hong Kong Jewellery & Gem Fair. He also will lecture on the topic of "Pigeon's Blood: A Journey to Burma's Ruby Mines," as part of the AGIL conference in conjunction with the Fair. Attendees of next year's ICA Congress, mentioned below, will have the opportunity to catch Hughes's presentation on padparadscha sapphire. Will you be in Bangkok next week? Take in Hughes's lecture September 24 on "Gemological Heresies" at GIA's 85th Gemstone Gathering (details here). [back to top]

Sapphire: Science, Study, Synthetic, Summit

We focus here on several sapphire-related items regarding enhancements, optics, applications and Congress.

Cobalt-Doped Glass-Filled Sapphires – An Update

The Lotus Gemology laboratory website (see directly above) includes a Library of scholarly articles, book reviews and bibliography. "Cobalt-Doped Glass-Filled Sapphires – An Update," included amongst the articles, looks at yet another enhancement. The article is authored by Thanong Leelawatanasuk, Wilawan Atichat, Visut Pisutha-Arnond, Pornsawat Wattanakul and Papawarin Ounorn as well as Wimon Manorotkul and Richard W. Hughes, originally published in Australian Gemmologist (2013, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 14–20).

Initially studied in 2007, the technique is called Super Diffusion Tanusorn (after Tanusorn Lethaisong, a Chantaburi, Thailand treater). But the authors note that no diffusion was involved; it was a simple infilling into highly fractured, nearly colorless corundum by cobalt-colored glass, rendering it blue. The present study looked at so-called first generation (2007) and latest generation (2012) treated stones. Simple Chelsea filter and dichroscope examinations revealed a lack of pleochroism and strong red to orange-red, respectively—big giveaways that the material was neither natural nor synthetic sapphire.

Sapphire photomicrograph image
Blue cobalt-doped glass fills a surface-reaching fissure in this first-generation stone. Oblique fiber-optic illumination. The color in such near-colorless stones is obtained almost exclusively from the filling. (Photomicrograph: Wimon Manorotkul)

The microscopic features, nicely illustrated by photomicrographs, make for uneasy viewing. The stuff is simply beyond inferior, as the photomicrograph above makes, er, crystal clear. Other tests are administered, but the stability testing proved scary, as would be expected. Ultrasonic cleaning: whew, no change. Exposure to a jeweler's torch: the filler decayed. Immersion in sulfuric acid: filler slightly dissolved. Immersion in sodium hydroxide: filler strongly dissolved revealing fractures clearly. Because this material can so easily be identified, a word to the wise is sufficient.

Unusual Optical Effect in Blue Sapphire

The Summer 2014 edition of Gems & Gemology (Vol. 50, No. 2) shone the spotlight, so to speak, on a light bluish violet sapphire, in "Unusual Optical Effect in Blue Sapphire" by Iurii Gaievskyi, Igor Iemelianov and Elena Belichenko. Several optical tests were performed on the 1.36-carat stone in the lab of the State Gemological Center of Ukraine, including the DeBeers DiamondView™ (a powerful short-wave UV light source, according to the above article). The instrument recorded a strong pink luminescence, which was attributed to a Cr3+ (chromium ion) impurity. When the stone was removed from the instrument, the stone's light bluish violet hue had been replaced with light brown. No, this was not an inadvertent treatment; it reversed within 12 hours. Such reversible instability, rare in blue sapphires, is called photochroism.

Gorillas in the Fist, Sapphire on the Wrist

Prior to last Tuesday's release of Apple's new iPhone 6, there was quite a bit of speculation—too much, actually—about whether the new phone would feature a display panel of synthetic sapphire, replacing Corning Incorporated Gorilla® Glass. In May 2013, the company stated the glass could be found on 1.5 billion electronic devices. Five months ago, one industry insider claimed that the phone might include sapphire glass. But that same May 2013 Corning statement showed sapphire not to pass the strength test, as demonstrated in the video below. The performance of sapphire did not prevent Apple from including a sapphire crystal on its Apple Watch display.

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What's missing? The sapphire on the left already has shattered, as performed in this streaming video.


Sapphire and More: ICA Congress 2015 to be Held in Sri Lanka

Next year's 16th Congress of the International Colored Gemstones Association (ICA) will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 16–19, followed by a mine tour, May 20–26. The Congress will be concurrent with the Facets Gem Show, May 15–18. Both will be held at the 5-star Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Keynote speaker at the Congress will be David Schwartz, CEO of Harry Winston and former CEO of Tiffany & Co.

ICA Congress image

This is the second time the Congress will be hosted by Sri Lanka. Over 400 delegates are expected to attend. The mine tour will take place in the districts of Dambulla, Kandy, Ratnapura and Hikkadua. Presentation topics include:

  • Gem deposits and production in Sri Lanka
  • Ceylon sapphires – history and current status
  • Worldwide sourcing – new trends and emerging leaders
  • Mixed output of the colored stone industry – trends, branding and corporate social responsibility (CSR)
  • Gem treatment, enhancement, detection and disclosure
  • Market trends and opportunities
  • New tools in gem and jewelry marketing
  • Certification, origin, fair trade and corporate responsibility

Dr. A. Peretti, of GemResearch Swisslab will be on the speakers panel, with topics including Royal and Cornflower Blue Sapphires and Pigeon's Blood Rubies. Information on the Congress will be posted at the ICA website in the coming months. [back to top]

Industry News

Diamonds: Lost & Found

We look at coverage of the notorious Pink Panther jewel thieves as well as a new diamond find and some recent jewelry collections.

Lost. For twenty years a gang nicknamed the Pink Panthers has coordinated elaborate and well-executed robberies and thefts, such as the December 4, 2008 heist at Harry Winston's in Paris in which three of the male thieves were dressed as women. Their deeds were the subject of an extensive April 12, 2010 article in The New Yorker and their subsequent criminal conduct, including escapes from custody, is outlined in a Wikipedia entry.

The 2013 documentary Smash & Grab, directed by Havana Marking, was four years in the making and includes interviews with some of the gang members and their associates, according to a Gulf News story in March.

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Smash & Grab, the documentary about the Pink Panthers, uses graphic representations of recreations and interviews and well as traditional footage.

Also in March, the gang's career was covered by a CBS 60 Minutes segment that was rebroadcast on August 31, two minutes of which are posted here. That's more than a minute longer than it took the gang to drive into (literally) Graff jewelers in Dubai and make off with millions in diamonds.

Lost? and found. On September 9, Petra Diamonds announced the "recovery" of a 232.08-carat colorless diamond at its Cullinan mine in South Africa. It is a D color Type II and likely will be sold in the second quarter of the company's fiscal year, which began July 1. By comparison, the Cullinan Heritage, at 507 carats uncut, brought in $3.5 million when it was sold in 2010—a record price for a rough diamond.

Rough Diamond photo image
Screen shot image

Lost and found. In doing some spring cleaning in the late summer, your editor ran across an item sent in June by Mia Dixon, Pala International's resident photographer. We're all familiar with movie tie-ins, but this one really catches the eye: a line of jewelry inspired by Angelina Jolie's portrayal of Maleficent in the film by the same name. Italian designer Gianluca Gabbani, who apparently was wowed by the film, created a ring, bracelet and headpiece inspired by the crows that attend the malefic Ms. M. Meanwhile, Daniel-Philip Belevitch's Crow's Nest created a seven-piece collection that includes work done in rhodium with black diamonds. See photos on Professional Jeweler. [back to top]

Burma Bits

Development Developments

It's ironic that the Chinese city of Shweli, across the border from Burma's Muse, is known by the Chinese as the "jade city," according to a September 8 Myanmar Times story. After all, jade mainly comes through Muse, Shweli's mirror on the Burma side. That could change, now that plans are being made for a jade market in Muse, as part of a huge development plan.

Jade Market illustration image
Super market. An artist's rendering of the jade market in Muse, scheduled for a 2015 year-end opening. An August 18 article by Myanmar Times included a photo of the under-construction district, of which the market is only a part. The district will occupy 294 acres and building it could employ as many as 1000 workers.

One Burma jade dealer, working in another border town on the Chinese side said he'd move to Muse in a minute if the jade market opens as planned, in 2015. He said that doing business in China is costly and risky. For instance, in the case of a dispute, Chinese authorities tend to side with fellow nationals. The new market will not be without its own risks, since it must attract enough business from both Mandalay sellers and Chinese buyers. Mandalay trader Ko Myo Myint said the market actually could boost smuggling in order to bypass customs.

Meanwhile, in Yangon, Burma's first cut-and-finished gem market is scheduled to open next month in the complex housing the Myanma Gem Museum, as reported by Eleven Media Group on September 11. The plan is for the market to feature a laboratory and a bank that can provide merchants with loans so they can set up workshops and factories for value-added gem-related products.

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Red-y? A superb natural Burma ruby, 2.72 carats. Inventory #22003. (Photo: Mia Dixon)

Development in Yangon and Mandalay has triggered a speculative real estate buying binge, according to another Eleven story on September 2. Some areas have seen a 2000% surge in prices. An Eleven story on August 24 stated that "well over half" of all money coming into Burma is being invested in real estate. Yet another Eleven story, September 3, claimed that more than 1000 foreign nationals stream into Burma each month, mainly from China. Many of these go to Mandalay, buying up property; but Eleven states this is an old story. Xinhua reported on September 1 that Burma has removed eleven restrictions on business activities by foreigners, including jade and gemstone prospecting, exploration and production. At least some of this activity, it would seem, is facilitated by black market banks, which were profiled by a DVB story September 12. Such is the contention of an August 29 story by Eleven, regarding Burma's attempts to fight money laundering. New "bylaws" against such laundering were being rushed into place, according to Eleven, September 1. Skepticism about the bylaws' efficacy were expressed a week earlier in an Eleven story.

Jade Jottings

More than 1000 people were displaced in Kachin's Hpakant Township, in Burma's jade land in late August, as reported by The Irrawaddy. Jade firms, which deposit soil into the Uru River and its tributaries is to blame, according to that article and another by Eleven. An unsigned commentary by Eleven noted that flooding leads to health problems as well as displacement.

On the horizon, nevertheless, is a bid by about 80 companies to resume jade mining in the region, according to a September 2 story by Eleven.

Jade exports rose 15% in the current fiscal year, as reported by Eleven on August 27. But two weeks later a Commerce Ministry adviser, Dr. Maung Aung, complained that local business owners didn't have a clue about the market, including designs that attract customers.

At least there was some bright news from Kachin Independence Organization: clashes between KIO forces and the military are down, as reported by Kachin News Group (KNG) September 6.

Bite-Sized Bits

  • Eleven: Two years after Tay Za asked to leave, he's replaced as chair of Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association
  • KNG: Tay Za joins search effort for missing climbers in Kachin
  • Eleven: Taiwan has its eye on Burma's jade and ruby
  • Eleven: Mobile units to target gem (and other) smuggling
  • Mizzima: NGO director compares addiction and HIV in today's cities with Mogok and Kachin in the '90s

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Pala Presents

Pala Presents title image

With Pala Presents, we offer selections from the collection of Pala International’s Bill Larson, who will share with us some of the wealth of information in the realm of gems and gemology. And, as with this edition, gemstone-related collectibles.

Lotus and Bee: Birthstone Collecting Cards

This month we feature four birthstone cards for the month of September and its stone of sapphire. Two cards include birth flowers: morning glory (recognized in the U.S.) and Aster (recognized in the U.K. and U.S.).

The verses on the cards tell us that skies as blue as sapphire await the child born this month and, who, upon wearing the stone will be wise and free from mental illness.

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Three other collecting cards for September are available here.

As we did with July's birthstone, ruby, we turn to Tagore's Mani Málá appended to Richard W. Hughes's Ruby & Sapphire (1997, 489), and we find the range of color in sapphire likened both to the lotus and "the Bhramana (the black bee)." We can't help but recall the poem by West Bengal poet Kamalakanta Bhattacharya (1769–1821), which uses the same imagery.

The black bee of my mind is drawn in sheer delight
To the blue lotus flower of Mother Shyama's feet,
The blue flower of the feet of Kali, Shiva's Consort;
Tasteless, to the bee, are the blossoms of desire.
My Mother's feet are black, and black, too, is the bee;
Black is made one with black! This much of the mystery
My mortal eyes behold, then hastily retreat.
But Kamalakanta's hopes are answered in the end;
He swims in the Sea of Bliss, unmoved by joy or pain.

For more information on birthstones, see Palagems.com. [back to top]

Sapphire, The Royal Gem

The Royal Gem cover image

Ninety years ago, The New Mine Sapphire Syndicate of London published a pamphlet-length overview of "the most valuable deposit of precious stones existing in the United States of America"—the firm's sapphire-bearing claims of Judith Basin County, Montana. The claims actually started out as gold mining claims; unfortunately, that production couldn't even pay for the water brought in for washing gravels. But, in a sentence from the pamphlet that tests 21st-century attention spans,

The sluice boxes, however, contained a large number of blue pebbles which, while no importance was attached to the find at the time, were subsequently identified by Messrs. Tiffany as sapphires of high grade and thus an enterprise which appeared to have culminated in an absolute loss, brought in the end substantial reward and led to the location of the lead from which the stones had become detached, and the development of an industry which during the quarter of a century of its existence has produced and placed on the markets of the world gems to the value of several millions of dollars.

Read the full, nicely illustrated text here—if you have the patience.

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North America, showing the position of the "New Mine." We now know this locality as the famous Yogo Gulch.

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Gemming in Ceylon

A reprint by H. V. Sardha Ratnavira

The following brief overview of gem mining in what is now known as Sri Lanka was written by H. V. Sardha Ratnavira, gemological student. It appeared in the Winter 1939 edition of Gems & Gemology (Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 51–52; used with permission). Ratnavira is the father of Gamini Ratnavira and was the first Asian to qualify at the Gemological Institute of America, in 1937–1938, when it was still in Los Angeles. The images are from "Ceylon's Gem Mines," included in Peter Bancroft's classic Gem and Crystal Treasures.

Nestling among the peaks of the Sabragamuwa district lies Ratnapura, famous throughout the world as the city of gems. Star sapphires, blue sapphires, rubies, cat's-eyes and a large variety of other gems, of quantity unlimited, are found here. It is here that one finds the gemming industry of Ceylon at its best. Here one comes across many gem pits, all working at full speed, producing stones that will form the basis of some of the finest jewelry that Ceylon offers.

If one be interested in gem mining, he first has to obtain a license to work a gem pit. An application must be forwarded to the Government Agent of the district, who will refer the matter to the Ratemahatmaya, or Headman. The matter does not end here, for the Police Vidane (police officer) must be informed, too, that he may make inquiries as regards the intended site of the gem pit. If the site belongs to the government, permission will not be granted. These inquiries naturally cannot be rushed, the usual period extending from two to three months. The gem mining business is carried on mainly by the Singhalese.

Gems & Gemology cover image

Once the application has been passed the applicant consults an astrologer as to the time most auspicious for the opening ceremony. The method of choosing the site is not done in a scientific manner. Usually the site is chosen near a spot which has been well known to produce gems, and a trial is first made by digging a small section of the ground. An experienced man can always tell whether the site is workable, usually by the presence of gem-bearing rock known as "Thiruvana" in Singhalese. Before work is started, prayers and offerings are given to the "Powers That Be" beseeching success in the undertaking. This ceremony is performed on the site. The first spade of gravel is turned by the owner of the gem pit and then the miners start to work on it. These miners are enrolled from the ranks of the villagers of that district, who, of course, have a wide experience in this type of work.

As regards the shares, the majority belong to the owner, the remainder being divided among the miners. The value of the shares depends on the quality as well as the quantity of the stones found. The owner sometimes furnishes food, but this usually is supplied by the miners themselves. In the case when the owner pays for the meals, the miner returns half of his share. This system is called in Singhalese "karu howl," karu meaning laborer or workmen, and howl meaning a share. Sometimes the owner spends hundreds of rupees and does not get anything in return.

Gem Shaft photo image
Looking down 25 meters into a gem shaft. (Photo: Gerhard Becker)

The pit is usually dug about four feet square and three to six feet deep, making room for two or three miners to work. This type is dug only if the gem-bearing gravel is found near the surface. On the other hand, the gravel may be found deep down, and if this be the case the pits are dug about six feet square and ten to twenty feet deep, or perhaps even more. If the soil be loosely packed, especially in deep pits, a scaffolding is erected inside the pit to prevent the soil from sliding in. This precaution must be taken, as very serious accidents have occurred. If a number of pits be found close together, tunnels are construded connecting them together. One disadvantage of a deep pit is that water gushes in due to the tapping of hidden springs. This water is bailed out by an especially constructed winch, a number of buckets being attached to the connecting rope. The miners go on digging until they encounter either a blackish rock called "ralu ratta" or a rocky gravel of whitish color called "thiruvana." This is an indication to the miner that the next layer must contain gems. This layer is called "illam." If after the illam they come to a layer of clay, called "malawa," they do not dig any further.

The illam is the most important layer and is broken up by the miners who use an iron rod called the "illam kura." The miners usually wear only a loincloth, and a handkerchief is tied tightly around the head, the handkerchief being used to prevent the debris getting amongst the hair. One feels sorry for the miners, for their work is hard; at the end of the day's labor they are covered from head to foot with mud. But they are a happy-go-lucky crowd and may often be heard singing while they work.

The gravel is brought to the surface in baskets and collected in an adjacent spot. When no more illam is obtainable the owner chooses an auspicious day for the washing and sorting. Until this time the heap of gravel is covered with leaves and well guarded. The usual custom on that day is to prepare "milk rice" (rice boiled with coconut milk) which is eaten on the spot just before the gravel is washed. If the pit be near a river, the gravel is transferred to the bank, where it is washed. When there is no river close by, a trench is cut near the dumped material and filled with water, the gravel being washed in this trench in large baskets. During the washing process the owner is always on the spot as the miners sometimes cannot resist the temptation to hide a good stone. As the gems are heavier than the gravel they remain at the bottom of the baskets and the sediment is washed away. The rough stones are then given to the owner, who decides with the miners whether the stones are to be auctioned or sold to a gem merchant. The money obtained from this transaction is then divided, the owner taking his share and the rest being divided as previously arranged.

Gemming a River photo image
"Gemming" a river. Disturbing the gravels with poles causes waste to float away, leaving gems to be gathered from river bed. (Photo: Edward Gübelin)

When gems are found in streams the procedure is slightly different. A dam is constructed across the stream leaving a space in the middle of about five feet, in front of which a wooden log is fixed. The water rushes over this log and the miners standing in front with long-handled "mamoties" drag the gravel toward them. The sand is washed away and the illam is collected in the trough. As soon as the illam is noticed the miners either dive down with baskets and collect the illam or continue using their mamoties to remove it. The washing is, of course, done on the spot. [back to top]

— End September Newsletter • Published 9/16/14 —

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