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Sapphires of Sri Lanka

by Derrick Schokman

Driving along the Colombo-Ratnapura highway in the direction of Pelmadulla, you cannot miss the gem pits in the ricefields by the roadside.

They are only a fraction of what may be found along a rich seam of hidden colour stretching across the province of Sabaragamuwa, which was once known as "Sapra Gammuwa" in recognition of the beautiful sapphires mined there.

You will see the barebodied miners swirling water and the rich pebbly gravel or illama in large cane baskets, looking intently for the tell-tale glimmer of nila or blue sapphire, king of precious stones in Sri Lanka.

Should good fortune favour their enterprise, all those involved will get a share of the buried treasure in time-honoured proportions: the financier of the project, licensee of the mineral rights of the land, the water pump operator and those who toil in the mud and water.

Yellow sapphire

There are stories of lucky finds. One such find occurred on a tea estate. The driver of a lorry was the one that fortune favoured. Reversing his vehicle on the narrow estate road he hit the embankment, dislodging the earth which fell onto the open tailboard. Cleaning out the debris he came upon a nila and was Rs. 60,000 richer overnight. Lucky strikes like that however are rare. Overall it is the muddy quest in the pits that prevails.

When one reads the old time travel literature in respect of Sri Lanka, oddly enough it is not sapphires but rubies or hyacinth stones that are glowingly referred to by the writers.

Star sapphire

Rubies as big as pine cones; rubies so large that they could not be gripped by a closed fist; rubies that gave as much light as a candle; a saucer made of ruby as large as the palm of a man's hand; and a ruby a span long and quite as thick as a man's arm. That last was an observation by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who must have been wearing very strong magnifying glasses.

This is difficult to understand because Sri Lankan rubies are not anywhere near the size of quality mentioned by travellers. It is far more likely that what they saw were imports from Burma (Myanmar) which was a country well known for its rubies.

It was the Portuguese in the 16th century who first mentioned sapphires as an important gem export. Vasco de Gama, who established Portuguese rule in Malabar, stated that Lanka had "all the fine cinnamon of the Indies and the best sapphires."

Blue sapphire-studded ring

We still have the best blue sapphires of cerulean hue, a favourite with fashionable women all over the world. The 14 carat "Blue Belle" adorns the British crown.

The pretty yellow sapphire of the colour of pollen is nowhere near as popular as the blue. Yet a colour saturated stone can be extremely beautiful, deserving of far more attention.

And, of course, there are the rare star-sapphires. The largest in the world was mined over 100 years ago in Sri Lanka and may now be seen in the subcontinent as the "Pride of India".

Blue sapphires are the most important economically. Of a total export of gems from Sri Lanka in 2002, valued at Rs. 5,878 million, blue sapphires topped the list at Rs. 2,520 million, nearly 50 per cent.

The gem and jewellery industry taken together is the third highest foreign exchange earner in this country today, exporting around Rs. 8,000 million. Yet our share of the world gem and jewellery trade is a paltry 5 per cent.

We can do much better say the experts if we convert our most important natural resource of blue sapphire stones into design jewellery, and thereby bring about a considerable increase in earnings.

The USAID-TCI consultancy report regarding "Sapphire Brand Strategy" is in agreement: "The best way to add value to these unique stones is to put them into beautiful high value designer jewellery, designed by the world's top designer houses and produced by manufacturers in Sri Lanka."

In the manufacture and sale of jewellery, the need for attractive designs is vital. And these designs must be acceptable to the markets that are targetted.

Sri Lankan gem traders are aware of the importance of design.

Their problem is that they have little knowledge of foreign market designs, and little resources for design development or the purchase of foreign designs.

To fill this lacuna the Sri Lankan gem and jewellery industry requires assistance to procure suitable designs from outside (eg. Hong Kong) until domestic capabilities are developed.

This would be a positive marketing policy to adopt if our island of gems is to earn recognition as the Sapphire Centre of the world and claim a larger pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Daily News - Mon Oct 20 2003

Sapphires of Sri Lanka

by T. Piyadasa, Director General, National Gem & Jewellery Authority

Sri Lanka has already got a national flag, national anthem, national tree and a national flower. Cabinet has given approval for adoption of the blue sapphire as a National Gemstone of Sri Lanka, and to issue a stamp with the picture of the blue sapphire concurrently so as to give publicity to this initiative. The stamp is released as the National Gem Blue Sapphire and also commemorate the certification date (21.10.1993) of National Gem and Jewellery Authority Act.

40.3 kg Corundum Crystal

Pure Corundum is colourless. In hardness corundum is second only to diamond and rates 9 on Moh's scale. The red variety is termed 'Ruby'. Blue corundum is called 'Blue Sapphire'. All the other colours except 'Pathmaraga' are simply termed with colour designating prefix such as Yellow Sapphire, Pink Sapphire and Green Sapphire. Corundum is Aluminium Oxide (Al2O3).

The colour in rubies could be in various shapes and is dependent on the quantity of chromic oxide present. The colour in ruby could be patchy banded or uniform. The colouring oxides responsible for the Blue Sapphire are the Iron and Titanium.

A remarkable improvement in colour and lustre is shown in the course of polishing in 'Rambuka' Blue Sapphires of Sri Lanka. Iron is basically the colouring element in Yellow Sapphires.

100 Carat Blue Sapphire found in Sri Lanka.

They are identified as Pushparaga. Most reputed area is Aluthnuwara in Balangoda electorate. The term Pathmaraga is a Sinhalese term applied to very special colour variety of corundum. This word in Sinhalese language means colour of 'Lotus flower'.

The name Pathmaraga is now universally accepted. The colour of this stone is a combination of yellow, pink and orange.

This mineral is a member of trigonal crystal system. Asteriated Sapphires are in blue colour known as Star Sapphire. If these asteriated sapphires are in red colour, they are known as Star Rubies. When such stones are cut 'en cabochon', they display a special reflection effect in the form of six and in rare instances a twelve rayed star on the cabochon surface. This star effect is shown in yellow colour stones of corundum family.

Zircon is one of the most common solid inclusions found in Sri Lanka Corundums. These are rounded grains of Zircon surrounded by tiny tension fractures creating a halo. (Zircon haloes). Other common mineral guests in Sri Lankan sapphires are dark prism of rutile, hexagonal prisms of apatite and spinel octahedra. As with all gems, the value of corundum gems depend on colour, clarity, weight and the quality of cutting. Flawless, transparent blue sapphires of deep colour are highly prized. Sri Lanka's Blue Sapphires stand out in any collection of the world's best gemstones.

2965 Carat Blue Sapphire found in Sri Lanka.

It is also necessary to mention Sri Lanka Geuda Corundum. Approximately 85 per cent found in Sri Lanka are 'Geuda'. Geuda is low gem quality corundum. These varieties can be turned into high quality Blue, Yellow Sapphire by heat treatment.

Generally gemstones containing geuda display a smoky, milky or murky appearance.

They are semi-transparent, semi-translucent, whitish or semi-brownish milky or silky corundum with characteristic 'diesel effect' (colour of diesel fuel) in transmitted light. This effect or cloudiness is caused by the presence of a dense concentration of rutile. (T102) inclusions.

According to the symposium classification four main sub-varieties are identified. These names were common usage in the trade. What symposium did was to categorise and separately identify the, numerous varieties according to their properties as follows:

i. Diesel Geuda 

ii. Silky Geuda

iii. Ottu Geuda

iv. Dun Geuda

Classification of 'Geuda' is as follows:

(i) Geuda - Diesel Geuda; Milky Geuda; Silky, Milky Geuda' Young Milky.

(ii) Ottu - Pita Ottu - Dot/Dun/Iri/Ural/Black; Atul Ottu - Dot/Dun/Iri/Ural/Black.

(iii) Silky - Silky; Young Silky; Thick Silky.

Sri Lanka is considered one of the oldest sources of sapphires. No sapphire in the world can equal that obtained in Sri Lanka. Dr. Gubelin, the famous Gemmologist with his vast knowledge and experience recognises a blue sapphire from Sri Lanka. He decides this by the study of inclusions which are in themselves typical. Good Blue Sapphires from Sri Lanka are reputed for having a very pleasing intensity of colour. Its degree of transparency is very high. Clarity is excellent.

These characters combined enable the stone to display a very high lustre. Legend says King Solomon in the Biblical times wooed the queen of Sheba with precious stones from the paradise isle. Marco Polo the supreme traveller who had seen the wonders, mysteries and the unparalleled splendour of the Kingdom of the Cathay, was amazed by the priceless Ruby in the possession of the King of Sri Lanka. He recorded his wonder in these words, "It was a span in Length, without a flaw, brilliant beyond comparison." Richerd W. Huges, author of 'Ruby and Sapphire" book says abut a sapphire of 2965 cts. fist sized example and was estimated to yield a number of cut gems in the 50-100 ct. range.

But he has not mentioned the details of the exact locality. The biggest Sapphire Gem 563 carats on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York named as "The Star of India" but in the actual fact, it is from Sri Lanka.

Some of the Sri Lanka's most renowned Sapphires:

Blue Giant of the Orient, 466 carats - "The Morning Leader" a news paper in Sri Lanka on August 23, 1907 published the following news item under the headline "A moonstone Sapphire worth 7000 pounds". The stone was mined in Ratnapura district some six months ago. In its finished state it is 2 1/2 inches long, 1 3/4 broad and its greatest thickness 3/4 of an inch. The Sapphire, there is every reason to believe is the largest sapphire in the world.

Belle of Asia

400 carats - Discovered in the paddy field of Pelmadulla in 1926. Reputed gem dealer sold the above stone to the British named Lord Naffield. The Blue Belle is held in the highest esteem among blue sapphires owing to its highly prized peacock blue colour and its excellent clarity.

Blue giant of the Orient

486 carats - Considered to be the largest blue sapphire in the world was sold to a Japanese by a reputed gem dealer in 1972. Now this stone is in Switzerland.

Logan Blue Sapphire

423 carats - Considered to be the second largest blue sapphire on record. It is a flawless specimen. A rich deep blue in colour. Gifted to the Smithsonian institute in Washington by Mrs. John A. Logan.

Star of Lanka

362 carats - The Star of Lanka has the reputation of being the third largest star sapphire of similar quality in existence. This is rich deep blue in colour and has a well defined six rayed star. This is owned by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority of Sri Lanka. Another star sapphire was found weighing 224 carats named as "Star of Asia".

Rosser Reeves Star Ruby

138.7 Carats - The world's largest star ruby of comparably fine quality. It has rare features of excellent colour, a well defined star and good transparency. One of the outstanding gem collection at the U.S. National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian.

Recent discoveries of large sapphires

1. Orange Sapphire (825 Carats) - This was found from a gem pit at Kuruwita in Ratnapura district. It was transparent and free of cracks.

2. Blue Sapphire (856 Carats) - This was found in a gem pit at Hakamuwa close to Ratnapura city in 1998. This was named as "Pride of Lanka".

3. Blue Sapphire (8042 Carats) - This was found in a gem pit at Pelmadulla in Ratnapura district. It was named as "Splendour of Lanka".

4. Blue Sapphire (2516 Carats) - This was found in a river bank at Ellawala in Ratnapura district. It was transparent.

5. Blue Sapphire (4002 Carats) - This was found in a gem pit at Neelagama in Ratnapura district in the year 2000.

6. Blue Sapphire (254 carats) - This deep Blue Sapphire was found in a gem pit at Ganegama near Pelmadulla in Ratnapura district. According to the reports received following Blue Sapphires were mined during this year in Ratnapura district.

i. 1200 Carat Blue Sapphire - Kosgala.

ii. 138 Carat Blue Sapphire - Watapotha.

iii. 260 Carat Blue Sapphire - Pelawela.

Synthetic Sapphires were introduced in 1902 onwards by various names such as "Vernuil, Chatham, Czocharlski. Then 1980's diffused stones were introduced. Now the threat to the sapphire is known as Bulk diffusion.

At present there are stones of corundum family such as blue, green and brown coloured sapphires are also produced by the same way of Beryllium bulks diffusion treatment. This is alarming to all the coloured sapphires.