Sri Lanka, know as "The Land of Gems," is famous for its blue, pink
and yellow sapphires. The mining of sapphires in Sri Lanka dates back thousands of years, and it remains an important industry in the country. The primary sapphire mining areas in Sri Lanka are Ratnapura, Elahera, and Galle. These regions are known for their significant sapphire deposits. The mining process typically involves hand tools, such as shovels and sieves, as well as water to wash away dirt and gravel to reveal the gem-bearing deposits.
Having visited three emerald mines and a diamond mine... you can imagine my excitement when Arshed Aroos of Ruwanpura Gems invited me to visit Sri Linka, to see their mining, cutting, and polishing operations. It was a no brainer - and before I knew it, I was on my to Colombo, Sri Lanka, together with my friend, journalist Esther Lighart.
Never heard of Ruwanpura gems before? Neither had I, but having learned about the company, and their rich legacy in the gold and gemstone industry, I want the world to know about them! The company proudly holds a history of supplying gem stones since 1985. What is now Ruwanpura Gems began as Ruwanpura Gold House and Ratnapura Gold House, creating 22KT pure gold jewelry. The founders expressed a desire to include colored gems into the gold jewelry, which was initially met with resistance. Craftsmen and employers alike did not want to try it, as it was the first time that they were moving onto colored stones from an industry based on a Gold foundation. The process was slow as it was meticulous, only the best stones went into the manufacture of the gold jewellery. Little did they know that this evolution would change the future for the company.
The gems industry was huge and Ruwanpura had to be strategic, exploring colored stones while ensuring the steady production of gold jewelry. By 1998 Ruwanpura Gems existed alongside Ruwanpura Gold House, already exporting gems abroad at an amazing pace. The early 2000s brought branch sales/office in Bangkok; and subsequent expansion to Hong Kong by 2010.
The company established two Sri Lankan branches, in Colombo and Ratnapura by late 2010; and by 2012, they found themselves investing in mining in Madagascar and Mozambique. In 2014 a North American branch was founded in Greater Chicago Area, and the company has continued to grow and explore new markets ever since - it's a fabulous story of bold, brave entrepreneurs, always ready to take on new challenges! Importantly for me - and hopefully for many of you too - Ruwanpura Gems is dedicated to socially and environmentally responsible sourcing.Their carefully selected mining teams follow strict labor and environmental standards, and demonstrate a complete chain of custody for their gemstones.
Day one began with a three hour drive from Colombo to Ratnapura. Beautiful mountains, endless tea paddy's (Ceylon tea, anyone?) stretched out on both sides, as we rounded hairpin bends, avoiding the local TukTuks, as well as the almost 3,000,000 wild dogs that inhabit the island! We went straight to the factory to see the cutting and polishing process. Unbeknown to us when we set the dates for the trip, Ruwanpura Gems had been nominated for - and won! - a National Industry Excellence Award in cutting and polishing, and the ceremony was held on the day of our visit! After spending the day in the factory, it was easy to see why they won. Their skilled artisans are committed to perfection to bringing the best out of every gem, no matter how large or small the gem is!
Scenes from Inside the Ruwanpura Gems cutting and polishing facility in Ratnapura.
The factory cuts rough gems from their own mines, but also purchases from other mines to enable them to meet their output requirements. At least 30,000 rough gems are cut monthly, with an annual output of between 200,000 - 300,000 carats! Each piece is looked at on its own, and all no heat and with superb clarity. Blue sapphires are sourced from Sri Lanka, Rubies from Mozambique, and Multicolor from Madagascar.
The rough stones are bought, and then arrive at the office, where they are subjected to quality control again, with 20% being rejected due to has inclusions and quality. The gems then go for cutting, then back to office for further quality control, and another 15-20% is rejected! This is one of the most stringent processes I've ever seen, and it certainly explains why Ruwanpura Gems have such a beauty and sparkle, and also why they won the award!
After a wonderful dinner at our hosts home in a Ruwanpura (Sri Lankan hospitality is so warm and welcoming!) we had a good nights rest, in preparation for the next days mine visit.
Beautiful Sri Lanka!
Sri Lanka's sapphire mining industry is subject to regulations and licensing to control the extraction and trade of gemstones. Sustainable practices and ethical mining are also gaining importance in the industry. Sri Lanka's sapphires continue to be highly regarded for their quality and beauty, making the country a significant player in the global gem trade. With much of the gems found within alluvial deposits, originating from the highlands that, as a result of erosion have flowed down into areas like rivers and surrounding areas. Much of the gemstones are mined close to, or around paddy fields and other agricultural areas. While we were at the mine, farming was taking place all around us. The whole approach in Sri Lanka is very different to elsewhere - there is no armed security, no massive deep pits, very little heavy machinery. It's as close to nature as it can be, with a feeling that everyone involved in the process takes pride and ownership in Sri Lanka's remarkable gemstone deposits.
Scenes from the mine visit
The process itself is simple - deposits that have been washed down from surrounding hills and mountains are placed in a container for washing. The dirt is separated from the stones by the water, and the water mud runs off to the side while the stones run with the water into a bin. Once the bin is filled, the lid is removed, and the hunt for sapphires and other precious and semi precious stones begins!
One of the unique characteristics of Sri Lankan sapphires is their vivid and vibrant colors, often characterized by a distinctive cornflower blue. These sapphires are highly sought after in the global gemstone market. It's an incredible feeling to see these vivid pops of blue in the dirt! Esther and I could've spent all day rummaging through the bin searching for treasure, but the heat is intense, and it was time for a refreshment break - fresh coconuts cut down from the surrounding trees and unbelievably delicious.
That night, we drove back to Colombo, and took a 1am flight to Bangkok, to see the final stage in the Ruwanpura Gem cycle - the offices and showroom in Bangkok's Jewellery Trade Center. We thought we would fall into an exhausted sleep when we got to our hotel around 8am, but Bangkok had such energy, we decided to push through, and after a shower and breakfast we were soon on the bustling Bangkok streets, making use of local transport!
The offices are filled with incredible layouts, and beautiful loose gemstones. The showroom, which is open to the public, is a gem lovers dream. Choose your own special loose gemstone, including a wonderful selection of loose sapphires of all colors, or consider the ready made items - rainbow colored sapphire rings, earrings, and more. There is something for everyone, and the fabulous Fon from Ruwanpura will make sure you leave with your dream gemstone jewelry.
Visitng the Bangkok office and showroom.
After a superb dinner in Bangkok, on the 65th floor and overlooking the entire city, we went to sleep, setting alarms for 5am airport pick up! We flew back to Colombo, where Ruwanpura Gems were ready to show us some thing completely different - I love elephants, and had requested to see the native Sri Lankan elephants, a subspecies of the Asian elephants. We visited the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. While I loved seeing the beautiful creatures up close, it still had a zoo like atmosphere to me, and although it is wonderful that the animals are protected, fed, and cared for, the South African in me loves seeing elephants, and all animals, roaming freely in the massive Southern African game reserves. I understand that's not an opportunity we will all get to experience, but the enclosures at Pinnawala left me feeling sad for these huge, majestic creatures.
Not wanting to end this post on a sad note, let me point out that the mine visit was incredible, the cutting and polishing was beyond all my expectations, and the warm and wonderful welcome Esther and I received all over Sri Lanka meant the trip was ultimately unforgettably wonderful, a once in a life time opportunity! I am hugely thankful to Ruwanpura Gems for this opportunity. The next morning, as I boarded my flight home, I was filled with a renewed sense of awe for the gemstone industry - the wonderful people working in so many aspects of the industry, and these miraculous gifts from nature that we find on our planet. so much to be thankful for during these difficult times.