Sapphires, rubies, quartz, garnets, spinels, tourmaline, cat’s eyes, corundum, topaz, alexandrite, zircons, aquamarine… Welcome to Ratnapura, the undisputed land of precious gems.
Ratnapura has always been the trading post of precious gems, which represent the country’s wealth. The name of the city means “city of gems” in Sinhala.
The gems come from the humid hills of Ratnapura, between the Adam’s Peak and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.
The countryside surrounding Ratnapura is scattered with wooden canopies signaling the position of gems. Miners still use antique mining methods to extract precious gems. The entrance of the mine, a black hole several meters deep, lies behind a curtain. The miners pass the boxes full of illam, a mixture of gravel and mud which contains the gems, to the miners on the ground. The illam is put in screens made of reeds and washed into the water so that the mud is washed away and only the gravel and gems remain.
Small gems are sold directly to the resellers, while big gemstones are put up for auction.
We’re in Ratnapura’s main square with several expert gemologists. This is where dozens of precious stone merchants gather every day. The square has become the biggest open-air gem market in Sri Lanka.
The best time to trade is between 8 and 10am near the clock tower.
Merchants sell precious and semi-precious uncut stones. Sometimes they even sell heated gemstones, which have been treated to improve overall quality and appearance.
In this market you can find all kinds of gemstones, all natural and top quality. Even some of the miners come here without intermediaries to sell their gemstones.
Merchants use special torches to look inside the stones and check if they contain impurities or not.
The money obtained from the trade is distributed to several people in different percentages, according to a traditional system: the owner of the land where the mine is located, the owner of the water pump, the miners, the owner of the mining permit, and the gem merchant.
Some of the world’s biggest gemstones have been found in Sri Lankan mines. One of them is displayed at the American Museum of National History in New York, a 563-carat blue star sapphire called “Star of India”, even though it’s from Sri Lanka.