A Mystical Journey To Sri Lanka

In October 2017, members of the National Association of Jewellers (NAJ) and Gem-A embarked on the trip of a lifetime to Sri Lanka. Here, Barbara Kolator, Charles Evans, Olga González and Patricia Campion report on their adventures.

Gem-A collection curator and ODL tutor, Barbara Kolator FGA DGA, describes the temples and tea factories that caught her eye in Sri Lanka.

We didn't just look at gemstones during this memorable trip; we also had a chance to experience the culture and religions of the island. We visited a tea factory where we were shown how the leaves were sorted, fermented and dried and were then able to taste many of the brews on offer. After gemstones, tea was the most frequently bought item!

We visited several temples, including the famous Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, but for me the most spectacular visit was to the Cave Temple at Dambulla, a World Heritage Site. The five cave temples are inside a massive rock which rises 160m above the surrounding plain. They date back to the 1st century BCE and are still in use as places of pilgrimage.

Left: Interior of cave temple at Dambulla. Right: Ceiling of temple at Dambulla painted in dry tempera.Images ©John Baldwin

To get to the caves, we climbed up a steep stone staircase cut into the rock which was patrolled by the ubiquitous monkeys who try and steal anything in your hands - sunglasses in particular. We entered the magical temple compound and found a huge reclining Buddha within the first temple. I have rarely encountered such as spiritual and mystical place.

Patricia Campion and Barbara Kolator enjoying a gem dealing afternoon at Mount Lavinia Hotel. Image ©Charles Evans

As we entered cave after cave we saw the walls and ceilings were covered in paintings. These are made with dry tempera and are mainly from the 14th Century, imbued with vibrant colours that are from natural plant and mineral dyes. As we left the caves, we trekked down the hill in the twilight and encountered a magnificent Golden Buddha statue. The magical feeling of Dambulla stayed with us, even as the sun set.

Gem-A Infrastructure and Operations Manager, Charles Evans FGA DGA, paints the picture of a destination awash with charming people, magnificent architecture and of course, enchanting gemstones.

If, as an enthusiastic gemmologist you were to write the specification for your perfect field trip, it would probably sound like something close to your perfect holiday: palm trees, long beaches, and delicious food, meals on a terrace watching sunsets, wonderful hotels and smiling, friendly locals. For the perfect gemmological field trip you would have to add a few things that are a little more difficult to find - a destination that harbours an exciting geological cornucopia, rich in gems. You would get out into the beautiful countryside to stand among the men digging out the gem gravels and scan the resulting concentrate with eagerness to find something valuable. You would visit the markets where dealers push an astounding volume of stone packets at you and take no umbrage when you shake your head in dismissal.

While you wait - a quick repolish for a group member. Image ©Charles Evans

Your journey to a new destination, another market to mine, would not involve interminable hours on a bus or a lost day flying to another province. It would be just long enough to enjoy the scenery. Another day might see your scruffy self in the most exclusive of retail outlets looking at the very best of the nation's finds.

Another stop leads to more hours in awe of the skill involved in every area of the industry, sorting, sawing, preforming, and faceting. Gracious hosts ensure you never feel you have overstayed your welcome; demonstrating casting, soldering, setting and polishing with engaging smiles. What else could one wish for? Some wild monkeys, elephants and a good cup of tea? No problem at all. This perfect field trip could only happen in Sri Lanka.

Thank you to the NAJ, to Colin and Hilary Winter and to Gem-A for making it happen.

Top: Sunset View from Dambula Cave Temple complex. Bottom left: Corundum crystals in matrix, Collection of Gamini Zoysa Right: Mine near Ratnapura Patricia Campion and Elysia Aquilina. Images ©Charles Evans

Olga González FGA DGA, certified gemmologist and founder of Pietra PR, describes her experiences at Sri Lanka's mines.

This Sri Lanka trip was meant to be the perfect combination of business and pleasure. I could enjoy my gems, and buy them too. Aside from expanding my education, there was an opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds of an exotic country, and relish in the culture and newness of it.

In our industry we often discuss the 'mine to market' process. Yet how many of us have only experienced parts of it? We deal, work in sales, marketing, design, or tech...we may work in the trade our whole lives and never see what it is like to visit a working mine. Everyone who works in jewellery should visit at least one in his or her lifetime. It is one thing to love and appreciate the gemstones we promote and work with every day. It is quite another to see the faces of the hard labour that goes into it.

The group visiting Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress located in the nothern Matale District near the town of Dambulla in the Central Province, Sri Lanka. Images ©Olga González

There is raw beauty at the source. While in Sri Lanka, we visited both the Elahera mines, and the Mhakumbra mine. Our group got the royal treatment with meals at the mine owners' homes, one-to-one buying sit-downs with wholesale prices at Zam Gems and Lakmini, and a half-day Sri Lankan gemmology lesson with industry guru, Gamini Zoysa. On the latter educational retreat, I enjoyed learning about the variety of gems and minerals the country produces. At the Elahera mine it was fun to watch the panning of sapphires and the delight of finding three little yellow sapphire gems emerging from the earthy mix.

We visited Ratnapura, the 'City of Gems', where dozens of dealers flocked to us in the streets with their wares, surrounding on all sides with crystal rough, as well as cut stones. We also visited two factories, learning the ins and out of the jewellery manufacturing process.

The Mhakumbura mine. Image ©Olga González

Gem-A member, Patricia Campion reminisces on the vivid land and culture of this gem of an island.

There were so many wonderful aspects of the Gem-A and NAJ trip to Sri Lanka, but seeing gem mining in practice was fascinating. The group visited mines both in Elahera and Ratnapura, the main gem mining areas of Sri Lanka.

While all mining is licenced, unlike the large scale industrial operations found in other areas of the world, in other areas of the world, artisan mining on a relatively small scale prevails in Sri Lanka, usually carried out in former rice fields. Mining we witnessed in Elahera consisted of an open case pit or crater, several meters deep. Miners dug to the level of the gem bearing gravel or illam, which was then collected and washed in large woven circular pans. Washing took place in water collected in the bottom of the pit which separates the illam from the non-gem bearing gravel. Extracting the gems from the illam is done by hand. We were lucky enough to obtain a pan of washed illam and initial inspection revealed a multitude of coloured pebbles, most likely quartz and garnet as well as possible sapphires, chrysoberyl or spinels.

Left: Sifting through the illam yield at Elahera mine. Middle: Close-up of Elahera illam. Right: Washing the illam to reveal gemstones, Rapnatura. Images ©Patricia Campion

The mines we visited close to Ratnapura consisted of a series of pits a couple of meters in width and several meters deep. The pits may be connected at lower levels by a series of tunnels. With pit mining we witnessed the use of water pumps to control flooding.

In both areas basic huts are erected close to the mines in which miners take rest breaks and prepare food. Occasionally mining can become a 24/7 activity, at which time the huts also serve as miners' accommodation. We came away most impressed with a mining system which at first glance appears primitive, but, is a simple sustainable and environmentally friendly method of gem extraction.

The pit mine and and miners huts at Ratnapura. Image ©Patricia Campion

Interested in finding out more about gemmology? Sign-up to one of Gem-A's courses or workshops.

If you would like to subscribe to Gems&Jewellery and The Journal of Gemmology please visit Membership.

Cover image:  A fruit seller at Kandy market. Image ©Charles Evans

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