Landscape Sri Lanka

The teardrop of India

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is often referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean or the Teardrop of India. This is a place where nature, tradition, and precious stones intersect.

In the Central Highland Plateaus of the country, for millions of years, sapphires have been washed down by rivers and waterfalls to the foothills around Ratnapura – the heart of gemstone mining in Sri Lanka. Ratnapura means “City of Gems” in Sanskrit, from the words ratna (gemstone) and pura (town).

Landscape Sri Lanka

one the oldest deposits but still new sapphires are found every day

Sri Lanka mining and trading history spans for over thousands of years. These practices have been passed down for generations and this has made them reach great knowledge, expertise and craftsmanship.

The mining itself is a community activity, with families and groups working together. Local miners engage in partnerships with farmers and landowners, and they all share profits from the mining activities.

But the whole community around the gemstones includes not only the miners, but the traders who sell the rough stones, the cutting factories, and the people who distribute the gems to the marketplace. More or less everybody in Ratnapura somehow indirectly has their foot in the industry.

Sri Lanka is a great example of how a community can thrive through public access to their natural resources. As the whole journey of the gemstone happens in the one country, this guarantees that the local community benefits from their own resources.

Besides this, the wet landscape of Sri Lanka and its dense jungle creates the perfect conditions for exotic animals. Sri Lanka has the highest density of poisonous animals and bugs on the planet.

srilanka map darker

Ceylon sapphires

The Colours of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is famous for its sapphires. Historically, the deposit in Sri Lanka is one of the big three – together with Kashmir and Burma. The most famous colours of Sri Lankan sapphires are the shades of blue and the padparadscha.

Padparadscha has its name from the Sinhalese (Sri Lankan language) word for lotus flower, padmaraga (padma – lotus; raga – colour). It refers to the presence of orange and pink in the sapphire’s colour.

Overall, the mix of colours in Sri Lankan sapphires are: 70% yellow, 15% blue, 5% violet, 5% pink, 5% others – including padparadscha.

Sri Lankan sapphires often contain silk inclusions. Silk inclusions are needed to obtain the cornflower blue sapphire. The most famous cornflower is perhaps the one found in Lady Diana’s ring. The Blue sapphire of Diana’s ring is commonly thought to be from Kashmir, but it is Sri Lankan and it was actually donated by a Sri Lankan from Pelmadulla, Ratnapura.

Inclusions in general are considered a flaw, but silk inclusions, although barely observable by the human eye, can make the stones more desirable. The silk captures the colours and distributes it throughout the stone – a term used for sapphires containing silk is “sleeping beauty”.

As the environments where you find sapphires in Sri Lanka come from very alluvial soils, all the sapphires have been tumbled in water for millions of years. This makes them rounded, resembling a piece of glass on the beach.


The people behind the stones

Gem Cutting in Sri Lanka

In the 1960s, a Swiss gem cutter embarked on a journey to Sri Lanka, and teached the local community his gem cutting skills. This knowledge was passed down among the cutters, which led to generations of highly skilled artisans.

Their historical craftsmanship and manual tools also played a role in this. When technology arrived with modern machinery, the stone-cutting industry in Sri Lanka achieved a harmonious balance of ancient tradition and innovation. This approach of blending the old and the new, together with the knowledge and expertise of the cutters ensured Sri Lanka became the place with the most expertise in cutting sapphires.

partnership gem cutting

Sunrise facets

We connected with Nilanthi back in 2008 during our business ventures in Sri Lanka to Beehive industries, a gem cutting facility back then. Starting as a quality controller, Nilanthi was supervising over 1000 cutters and overseeing import-export operations. This also involved managing orders for Wennick–Lefèvre. We always admired her resourcefulness and responsibility, she always made every collaboration joyful.

Our mutual respect deepened over the years. In 2019, Beehive Industries faced closure. Recognising Nilanthi’s capabilities and alignment with our values, we offered her a partnership and our 50% premium policy along with financial support to create a new cutting factory – Sunrise Facets. With our shared values and a focus on understanding each other’s needs, our collaboration was a natural fit.

Nilanthi’s dedication to her team is evident. Her contracts reflect equality, double salaries, equal pay between genders, holidays, and maternity leave. A 42-hour work week and a supportive atmosphere in the factory creates a family-like community between everyone working there. Our partnership extends beyond business, to a personal loving relationship.

Sunrise Facets aspires towards a harmonious, quality-driven community rather than expansive production. Our journey with Nilanthi reflects how we can work together for a responsible business through our shared values. By transcending differences and building trust, we’re not only crafting gemstones but also inspiring change, promoting gender equality, and working towards making a positive impact.


The people behind the stones

Pit Mining

Pit mining is a traditional method of gemstone extraction in Sri Lanka. This method involves digging deep, vertical or inclined pits in search of gem-rich layers within the earth.

Constructing the mine is done using only natural materials. Rubber trees are used as the main construction, and ferns are used to insulate between the pillars. Both materials are found right next to the mines in the surrounding nature and are chosen for their great water absorbent qualities.

People behind the stones

Pit Mining

The miners dig the shafts into the ground using basic hand tools: shovels, pickaxes, and crowbars. This is a sustainable solution that preserves the landscape’s integrity. After extraction, these entry points can be sealed, leaving minimal impact on the environment. The only environmental impact is fueling the pump that removes the water from the mine.

As the miners go down into the pit, they access different layers of soil, gravel, and rock. Once gem-bearing material is found, miners extract it manually and bring it to the surface. The extracted material is then sorted to separate the valuable gemstones. The miners have a deep understanding of geological formations and clues in the surroundings that indicate the presence of gem-bearing layers. Their experience is what guides them in determining where to dig.

Yet, some changes have occurred since the Covid pandemic. Recently caterpillars have been introduced to the mining landscape of the country, which is now threatening the mining ecosystem that employs a wide range of people in the community. Read more about this here.


The people behind the stones

River Mining

River mining in Sri Lanka is a traditional method of extracting sapphires from riverbeds and sediment deposits. These are the locations around Ratnapura where miners search for sapphires.

This ancient practice has been a significant part of the country’s gem industry for centuries – as it has operated in a conflict-free manner, remaining unchanged for many generations.

People behind the stones

River Mining

River mining teams are usually small and consist of around 5 people, in partnership with the landowner next to the river. They work seasonally whenever the weather allows it – as the stream of water has to be down in order for this practice to be possible. Few licences are granted for river mining and the rivers are still unexplored.

There is no machinery used in this process. The miners extract the gems manually from the gravel by using basic tools: shovels, baskets, sieves and diving masks. The collected gravel is carefully sifted, sorted and then washed, this way revealing the gemstones found. While it is physical labour, the practice is beautiful to observe and it almost looks meditative and a natural part of the environment.

Less than 10% of the sapphires found in the area of Ratnapura come from river mining.

srilanka river BW