Gem Mining In Sri Lanka October 03 2015
The art and science of gem mining in Sri Lanka has developed immensely since the ancient times of Sinhalese Kings. Prospecting for gem deposits and removing earth and water to uncover these hidden gems has been a source of socioeconomic development for many of the Sri Lankan population. In fact, strong evidence suggests that gem mining may even be the oldest industry in Sri Lanka. If you ever have a chance to visit any gem ‘hotspots’ in Sri Lanka, you are likely to witness the assortment of methods used to extract theses precious stones. Seasoned gem traders, who usually wear a white short sleeved shirt and a sarong, will often be very friendly and accommodating when explaining their unique methods of extraction.
As of today, one can mine for gemstones in Sri Lanka only by obtaining a permit from the National Gem and Jewellery Authority.
In an attempt to protect the environment and sustainability of the industry, ‘large scale excavations’ using automated heavy machinery is not allowed within the borders of Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, foreign nationals are prohibited from obtaining permits for gem mining as a form of economic protectionism that greatly enhance the scarcity of Ceylon gems.
The process of prospecting for high value gem deposits is often left to well-experienced professionals who use a variety of low tech but very effective methods. One commonly used method is driving a 10 foot long rod into a geographical depression and listening to a very distinct sound as it pierces through the earth. This process usually takes about one or two days and has a proven track record in many areas of Ratnapura and Balangoda- the gem cities of Sri Lanka.
Gem deposits can exist within a couple of feet from the surface of the ground but some may only be found at depths of 70-80 feet. In the case of deep earth deposits, mining is often very expensive. It involves a team of 10 laborers who dig a square pit reinforced by wooden frames fitted to the walls. A system of air and water pumps are used to remove any water that may have seeped in to the pit and to provide breathable conditions as the laborers go deeper into the earth. This mining process can last from a couple of months to several years but the benefits reaped make it all worthwhile. Under current regulations, sales proceeds from mined roughs are divided among the laborers, the land owners and the traders and hence proves to be a very equitable form of compensation for all of the involved parties.
Gem deposits can also be found lying in wait in alluvial deposits and the banks of rivers. The ‘Kelani Ganga’ and ‘Kalu Ganga’ rivers are most notorious for nurturing some of the world’s finest cornflower blue sapphires. River miners usually select a shallow, slow flowing area within the river and build a dam built of wood or rock which direct water through a funnel. ‘Mammoties’ are used to remove surface gravel from the river beds and upturn the ‘illam’ (alluvial material) which in turns flows through the funnel and are then filtered by an experienced ‘gem panner’.
Whatever the method may be, the process of gem mining has been a generational act that continues to develop and compensate the hard working individuals, the local community and the nation. The discerning eye and natural instinct of the Sri Lankan has produced the finest gemstones seen by the world and will continue to do so for many years to come. As new generations step into the shoes of their forefathers, they bring with them more ideas, more technology and more spirit into an industry that greatly embodies the heart of Sri Lanka.