When one thinks of coloured gemstones, three jewels in blue, red and green come to mind first. Sapphires, rubies, and emeralds have been favorites for thousands of years, and continue to be admired. Their place of prominence in the gemstone’s world is such that they are often referred to as the “Big Three”. The three coloured gemstones are even more rare and precious than diamonds. All other gemstones called semi-precious gemstones due to their occurrence, hardness and value assessment.
By definition a ruby is only red, an emerald only green and sapphires occur in many colours a real colourful variety from well-known blues over all colours of the rainbow. Until recently, only sapphire, ruby and emerald were officially called precious gems and one of the most scare natural treasures. The precious categorization is a reference to value: a really fine sapphire, emerald or ruby can be priced higher per carat than a diamond.
These three precious gemstones come in many qualities, sizes and designs, enough to fit anyone’s tastes and a range of budgets.
Sri Lanka is the world’s oldest known source for the best quality sapphires and gemstones. The geology of the country’s valleys has created the conditions to create a bounty of precious stones in the country’s gem bearing district. Ceylon or Sri Lanka is called “Rathna Deepa” in the native language and it means “Land of Gems”. The name is a reflection of its natural wealth. Sri Lanka’s gem industry has a very long and colourful history. It has been estimated that nearly 25% of the total area of Sri Lanka is potentially gem-bearing, making Sri Lanka one of the country’s richest in gems having the highest density of gem deposits compared to its landmass. This also highlights the importance of Ceylon for the international gemstone trade and local gemstone industry.
The Highland Complex of Sri Lanka, extending northeast to southwest and containing high-grade metamorphic rocks, is the most likely area for formation of gemstone deposits. The metamorphic types of gems constitute around 90% of the gem deposits in Sri Lanka. The island was blessed with geological conditions that provide an ideal blend of chemistry, heat, pressure, time for gem crystals to grow, and weathering for the gem crystals to be deposited and concentrated in gravels.
The biggest mining areas of Sri Lanka are located in the floodplains of the valleys where rivers and waterfalls have flushed rich minerals to the lowlands. Most minerals are found in secondary deposits. These areas are therefore the primary mining sites in the present. Sri Lanka is unique due to the fact that many different kinds of gemstones can be found in a single deposit. What is special is that a large variety of gemstone types with fine qualities can be found in these deposits. 4C’s of sapphires
The gem fields of Sri Lanka contain about 75 varieties and sub-varieties of gemstones. The world’s finest quality sapphires originate from Sri Lanka as do other gemstones like ruby, alexandrite, cat’s-eye, chrysoberyl, spinel, tourmaline, garnet, beryl, peridot, critrine, moonstones, topaz, quartz and a variety of other stones. This makes Sri Lanka one of the most important countries of gemstone occurrences worldwide and creates important jobs in the country. The regulations for mining and gem trading are very strictly enforced to protect the interests of the local gem industry and mining communities. Journey of a sapphire
Most of Sri Lanka’s coloured gemstone deposits come from weathered alluvial soils or called soap beds. The reason for this is the erosion by rivers that went through the valleys and eroded the rock layers. The flow of water along a river course causes the removal, transport and deposition of crushed, mainly mineral solids in the form of gravel, sand and mud.
Therefore today’s most mines are located in rice fields on in the lowlands of the highland complex. Around 95% of current mining activities operate in areas with secondary deposits. The most famous and largest mining areas in terms of volume are Ratnapura, Balangoda, and Elahera, although these make up only a small percentage of the island’s total gem deposits. The main mining areas show secondary gravel deposits where sapphire crystals have a distinct, mostly rounded shape.
Sapphires from primary deposits are less common due to geological conditions, but they do exist. The sapphire crystals found here show a trigonal form in which the mineral is originally grown. A full geological study of all primary deposits has not been performed yet, so the true potential remains unknown. One major primary sapphire deposit was discovered by accident near Kataragama in 2012. However there exist several scattered and smaller deposits which bear a very fine quality and sometimes in very large carat sizes. Journey of a sapphire
Mining in Sri Lanka is strictly regulated and controlled by the government to protect mining communities and the environment through sustainable and responsible mining practices. Sri Lanka has a very sustainable vision for the local gemstone industry and implements this by legal regulations; e.g. limited mining licenses and fixed annual export quota, prohibition of exporting rough stones for assuring local and long-term business expertise and practice, job creation, retaining the value creation within the country, and securing employment for local businesses and communities.
Trade and regulatory bodies in Sri Lanka are against large-scale gemstone mining. In Sri Lanka, mining licenses are regulated by the Gem Corporation and the National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA). Of the more than 6500 licenses issued, more than 92% of the licenses were for small-scale pit-mining operations using only traditional methods. River mining had a share of 7.5%, which was recently banned altogether to protect the vegetation and animal species in the river beds.
In the past, permission to use machinery was granted only under very strict conditions, where small-scale manual mining was not possible, the proportion was below 0.5% of all issued licences. The aim is still to ban mechanical mining as far as possible in order to ensure maximum protection of the environment. Small-scale pit mining is the method by choice in line with traditional practisesfor a most environment friendly mining activity beneficial for the environment and local people. Small scale mining
Seen from the rarity and value of sapphires ever found in exceptional quality, by far Kashmir (India) is to be mentioned first. Then come Mogok (Burma) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) on the same level, but far ahead of all other countries with sapphire occurrences. In Kashmir, however, there have been no active deposits for over a hundred years and the market demands astronomical prices for old finds. These too are only traded through auction houses or exhibited in museums. Myanmar (Burma) is home to the world’s finest rubies and the sapphires found there are also of very good quality. There is active mining in Myanmar, but it is a region with long-standing conflicts. Also, the volume of yields are negligible compared to Sri Lanka where similar quality blue sapphires can be found.
There are several countries where sapphire mining is an active industry, such as Thailand, Madagascar, Cambodia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Australia and USA. However, each place of origin exhibits very different sapphire qualities as well as colours and colour combinations. Sapphires are now found in many countries, but though the volume is steadily declining for many reasons, the demand for this rare natural treasure is steadily growing.
Besides its long gem making tradition, Sri Lanka is considered worldwide as the number 1 sustainable source of fine sapphires due to its particularly high quality in terms of transparency, colour and clarity. Despite this, the naked truth is that supply of sapphires has been declining dramatically in the last century. Therefore, with a fixed number of mining licenses is it not easy to find this rare natural resource. The strong price increases are likely due to the declining supply within the last 10 years, but this has only increased the demand for sapphires exponentially. It is important to know that the country of origin of a sapphire also determines its value due to its quality characteristics and the rarity of its occurrence. 4C’s of sapphires
South-east Asia : Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam
South Asia: Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan
East Africa : Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique
USA : Montana
Australia: Queensland, New South Wales
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