October 2014

Island’s Sparkle
October 2014

A collection of rough Sapphire stones

Sri Lanka is world renowned for its natural gemstones, and is gaining momentum as the Sapphire capital of the world. That's because, among the variety of Sapphires unearthed here, Blue Sapphires are of the finest quality found anywhere in the world.

Words Prasadini Nanayakkara

It's natural that, of the gems in Sri Lanka, the Blue Sapphire earns pride of place. So much so that in 2003 it was declared the national gemstone of Sri Lanka. When speaking of the gems of Sri Lanka, that's where experts begin. In the hierarchy of gems the Sapphire family or Corundum is only second to Diamonds in terms of hardness, earning a value of nine in the Mohs' Scale used in classifying hardness. Only a Diamond can scratch a Sapphire. And what makes the Blue Sapphire of Sri Lanka so special? Its deep cornflower blue colour along with a singular lustre and clarity.

In the hierarchy of gems the Sapphire family or Corundum is only second to Diamonds
Sapphires come in various shades, ranging from the velvety cornflower blue down to the white Sapphire that has no colour. There is also the Red Sapphire or Ruby (although rare in Sri Lanka, there are others including a lighter shade of Ruby, the Pink Sapphire and Yellow Sapphire). Another rarity is a mix of pink and orange referred to as the Padma Raga or Padparadscha, so named to mean lotus colour. Padma Raga as it is known in Sri Lanka is rarer than the Ruby.

The methods in which stones are processed too produce greater value and variety. For instance the ‘cobochon' cut where the stone receives a convex or smooth rounded surface, can render a ‘six rayed star' effect. The light that enters the stone is reflected from its interior structures creating six perfect rays on its surface of the same strength and size. This feature elevates the value of the stone.

Just such a rarity, ‘The Star of Lanka,' resides at the National Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri Lanka and at 393 carats is the third largest Star Sapphire in existence. Sri Lanka is renowned for producing celebrity gemstones such as that one, and is also credited with the largest Blue Sapphire in the world, ‘The Blue Giant of the Orient', discovered in 1907, which changed hands to reach private ownership outside Sri Lanka.

While Sapphires comprise over 60 percent of gem stone exports from Sri Lanka, another prevalent variety is the Chrysoberyl family of stones.Among these are Chrysoberyl Cat's Eye and Alexandrite. Like the Padma Raga, the Alexandrite is a rare stone as its colour changes dramatically from green in daylight to red or purple under artificial light. The Chrysoberyl Cat's Eye is a stone produced from the Cobochon cut where the stone bears a single streak across its surface - an effect similar to that of the Star Sapphire.

A notable stone among the National Gem and Jewellery Authority collection is the ‘Ray of Treasure' a 103 carat Cat's Eye with highly desirable milk and honey effect and a well-defined silver ray. While stones such as the ‘Star of Lanka' and ‘Ray of Treasure' are not commercial products, large gemstones over five carats are considered investments.

As well as Sapphires and Chrysoberyls, other precious stones that spring from the Island's depths are Garnets which are found in abundance, coloured varieties of Spinels and Star Spinels, Topaz, Moonstones, and Quartz. Almandine, Rhodolite, Hessonite, Pyrope and, rarely, Spessartite, are Garnet varieties found in Sri Lanka that differ in colour of vivid saturation.

Although Topaz is mined in its colourless form, a radiant Swiss blue, London blue and sky blue colours can be rendered by irradiation. Sri Lankan Spinel Stones are found in all colours of the spectrum save for the colourless and green form. Among the Quartz family stones are the Amethyst, Citrine, Ametrine, Smoky Quartz, Rose Quartz and Star Quartz, which are attractive stones regardless of being less in price.

Gemstones originating in Sri Lanka are all natural, sourced from mines
Stones processed for commercial purposes are either calibrated or precision cut. Small stones cut to a specific size mainly produced for the jewellery market are calibrated stones with a very slight tolerance for discrepancy in size. However, very fine stones which are precision cut with zero tolerance adorn high jewellery such as watches. Gemstones originating in Sri Lanka are all natural, sourced from mines. While there are four laboratories to carry out gem testing in the country in the near future an internationally accredited gem testing laboratory will serve to add further value to gemstones certified as authentic.

Sri Lanka is a hotbed of gemstones and this is due to its geographical attributes. In particular Ratnapura in the Sabaragamuwa Province, Elahera in the North Central Province and more recently Kataragama towards the south east of the island are renowned sources for gemstones. Ratnapura, for instance, is a basin surrounded by mountains; over millions of years the mountains have eroded, releasing deposits conducive to gem formation into the open basins. These regions are believed to be 280 to 540 million years old. The Northern regions, such as the Jaffna Peninsula at 40-50 million years old, are newer terrain, in geographical context, and devoid of gems.

In Sri Lanka treasures in the making over eons lie in wait to spring from the island's depths to dazzle the eyes of the world.

Photographs: National Gem & Jewellery Authority and Mushan Gems