History of the Gem Trade in Sri Lanka

History of the gem trade in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has had an immense reputation from time immemorial for different varieties of gemstones. According to legend King Solomon wooed Queen Sheba, by presenting her with jewelry set with gemstones from Sri Lanka. Almost three millennia (29 centuries) later, Prince Charles, mesmerized Lady Diana, with an engagement ring adorned with a priceless blue sapphire from Sri Lanka.

Various types of beads found at several archaeological sites

Recent excavations carried out by the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka, has unearthed several ancient burial grounds, some of which have been dated back to year 1,000 BC or even earlier. This is roughly the period of King Solomon of Israel. In several of these sites many varieties of polished gems and gem beads have been unearthed (See Above), believed to have come from the jewelry adorning the corpses, and buried together with them. Thus the jewelry are as old as the corpses themselves.


King Solomon’s dealings with Sri Lanka in the 10th century BC

According to Sir Emerson Tennent King Solomon the greatest king of Israel, and the son and successor of David, is believed to have sent his ships regularly to the Island of Sri Lanka in the 10th century BC, to obtain supplies of precious and semi-precious stones, ivory, and also apes and peacocks, found abundantly on the island.


Lord Buddha’s visit to Sri Lanka in the 6th century BC

According to a legend recorded in the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa, written in the 5th or 6th century AD, Lord Buddha himself visited Sri Lanka in the 6th century BC, to settle a dispute between the Naga King Mahodera and Prince Chulodera, over a throne studded with gemstones.


Comments of Nearchus on Sri Lankan gemstones in the 4th century BC

In the year 334 BC, Nearchus, one of the officers in Alexander’s army wrote about the island nation and the abundance of translucent gems in the island.


King Devanampiya Tissa’s gift of gemstones to Emperor Ashoka of India in the 3rd century BC

Buddhism, the religion of the majority of inhabitants of Sri Lanka was introduced into the island nation during the period of rule in India, of the Buddhist King Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty in the 3rd century BC, between 265 to 238 BC. King Ashoka sent his son Mahendra as missionary to Sri Lanka to propagate the message of the Buddha, and successfully converted the King of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism. The King later sent several valuable gifts to Emperor Ashoka, which included precious and semi-precious stones from Sri Lanka, according to the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa.


Ptolemy on the Sri Lankan gemstones in the 2nd century AD

Ptolemy the second century AD, astronomer and geographer referred to Sri Lanka as the “Island of Taprobane” and wrote of the variety of gemstones found in the island in abundance, out of which the most famous were the beryl and sapphire.


Fa-Hsien’s visit to Sri Lanka in the 5th century AD

In the 5th century AD, the Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Fa-Hsien, who visited the Island, reported about the abundant availability of precious gemstones in the island. Fa-Hsien wrote “there is a district of about 10 square li which produces the mani jewel. The King has posted guards here, and takes a levy of three tenths of the jewels that are found.”

The origin of the term mani jewel is manikya or menik – the Sinhalese and Sanskrit word for gems. The district cited here is believed to be Ratnapura (City of Gems) famed for precious stones throughout the long history of Sri Lanka. The Ratnapura basin has been the traditional source of gemstones in Sri Lanka for over two millennia.


Inspiration for the Arabian Nights fables and Sinbad’s voyages – 9th century AD

The tales of mariners returning from their expeditions to the east, supplied the story tellers of the Arabian Nights their fables of the jewels of Serendib, the “land of rubies” as Sri Lanka was then referred to by the Arabs. The Sindbad voyages of unknown date are traditionally thought to have taken place during the reign of Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid (786-809 AD). It is believed that these tales, the details of which seem to be of doubtful veracity, have grown round the geographical knowledge of the east acquired by the Arabs by the end of the 9th century AD. and compiled towards the end of that century, or the beginning of the next. The information in these texts make it quite clear that Sri Lanka was a familiar port of call of Arab merchants in the Indian Ocean during this period.



Pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak and the gem trade-10th to 14th century AD

The Arab merchants came to Sri Lanka not only to purchase local produce such as spices, aloe wood, medicinal herbs, treacle, ivory, rubies and other precious stones, but also to climb the Adam’s Peak a favorite place of pilgrimage. To the Muslim Arabs, Adams Peak was a sacred mountain, on the summit of which was the foot print of Adam, the first human form created by God almighty. According to legend the foot print on top of the 7,360 ft (2,243 m) summit was formed when Adam was cast away from paradise, and landed on the earth, placing one foot on top of the mountain and the other foot on the sea. Serendib in their view was next to paradise. Heavy chains on the mountain’s south-western face, said to have been placed there by Alexander the Great, mark the route to the summit. Adam’s Peak was situated in the heart of the gem-producing area of Sri Lanka, Ratnapura (city of gems), and became a favorite place of pilgrimage for the Arabs, where religious devotion and commercial interest went hand in hand. Ibn Batuta in his travelogue says that the first Muslim pilgrim to Adam’s Peak, Abu Abdullah ibn al khafif, visited Sri Lanka in the 10th century, and returned with two gems of an unusually large size, which he presented to the Caliph.


Marco Polo comments on the gemstones of Sri Lanka in the 13th century AD

Marco Polo, the 13th century Venetian traveler, who traveled westwards from China to the Persian Gulf in a Chinese ship, broke journey in Sri Lanka which was on the east-west maritime route. In his travelogue he refers to the immense wealth of gems in Sri Lanka of different varieties. He wrote in 1292, “ I want you to understand that the Island of Ceylon is for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams come more beautiful and valuable rubies than are found in any other part of the world. Likewise sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets and many other precious and costly stones. The king is supposed to possess one of the grandest rubies that ever was seen, being a span in length and the thickness of a man’s arm, brilliant beyond description, and without a single flaw.”


Embassy of the King of Sri Lanka to the court of Mamluk Sultan of Egypt -13th century AD.

An Arabic document of the 13th century refers to an embassy sent by King Bhuvenaikabahu (1272-84) of Sri Lanka to the court of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt Sultan Qulaun (1279-90), in an attempt to improve trade relations with the Islamic world. The document provides interesting reading and evidence to show that Sri Lanka was a center of the trade in precious stones and pearls, during that period. The English translation of the document reads as follows:- “Ceylon is Egypt and Egypt is Ceylon. I desire that an Egyptian ambassador accompany mine on his return and that another be sent to reside in the town of Aden. I possess a prodigious quantity of pearls and precious stones of every kind. I have vessels, elephants, muslin and other stuffs, brazil wood, cinnamon and other objects of commerce which are brought to you by the banian merchants. My kingdom produces trees, the wood of which is fit for making spears. If the Sultan asks me for twenty vessels yearly I shall be in a position to supply them. Further the merchants of his dominions can with all freedom come to trade in my kingdom. I have received an ambassador of the Prince of Yemen, who has come on behalf of his master to make me proposals of alliance. But I have sent him away through my affection for the Sultan. I possess twenty seven castles of which the treasuries are filled with precious stones of all kinds. The pearl fisheries are part of my dominions and all that is taken there belongs to me.” The Arabic document was written by the Moors, the descendant of the Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka, and provided services to the king of Sri Lanka as diplomats, trade representatives, advisers, interpreters, soldiers, etc.


Ibn Batuta’s comments on the gemstones of Sri Lanka in the 14th century AD

In 1344, the inveterate Arab traveler Ibn Batuta from Tangiers, Morocco, arrived in Sri Lanka after crossing over from Southern India. The highlight of his visit was the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak. While in the gem country he takes note of the fact that the more valuable stones were reserved for the king who bought them, and the rest belonged to those who found them. In his travelogue Batuta wrote that “Gems are found in all localities of the island of Sri Lanka. All the women of Serendib possess necklaces of precious stones of diverse colors. They wear them on heir hands and feet in the form of anklets and bracelets. I have seen on the forehead of the white elephant several of these precious stones, each of which was larger than a hen’s egg.”


Vasco de Gama’s comments on the gemstones of Sri Lanka

The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama whose voyages to India from 1497 to 1524 AD, opened up the sea route round the Cape of Good Hope, from western Europe to the East, eventually making Portugal a world power, said of Sri Lanka, “Ceylon has all the fine cinnamon of the Indies and the best sapphires.”


Robert Knox writes about the gemstones of Sri Lanka in the 17th century AD

In the 17th century another reference to the abundant resources of gemstones in Sri Lanka can be seen in the writings of Robert Knox, a sailor who was in the service of the British East India Company, but captured and taken prisoner in 1660, by the King of the Kandyan Kingdom in central Sri Lanka, and held captive for several years before being released. Knox wrote, “In this Island are several sorts of precious stones, which the king for his part has enough of and so careth not to have more discoveries made. Also there are certain rivers out of which it is generally reported that they do take rubies and sapphires and catseyes for the king’s use. And I have seen several pretty colored stones, some as big as cherry stones and some as buttons, and transparent, but understood not what they were. Rubies and sapphires I myself have seen.”


Gem Trade during the colonial period

In spite of Sri Lanka’s legendary fame for its precious stones, the colonial powers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, who ruled Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1948, did not show any interest in developing that industry. Gem mining at that time was considered to be a precarious and speculative venture, and the government was reluctant to extend its patronage to such wasteful ventures, with uncertain returns. The government felt that the venture was better left to the private sector, and they adopted a policy of non-interference, and was satisfied with the revenue received from licenses issued to gem miners. According to Bertolacci and John Davy, in the early 19th century during the British period, the gem trade in Sri Lanka was entirely in the hand of Muslims, except for the aspect of mining which was done mostly by the Sinahlese. The Sinhalese miners either worked independently and sold their findings to Muslim middle men, or worked for wages in mines owned by Muslims.

After purchasing the stones the Muslim traders got them cut and polished by professional cutters and polishers belonging to their community, a field in which the Muslims virtually had no competition in the Island. The technical skills needed for cutting and polishing had been handed down from generation to generation from time immemorial. As such the Muslims remained the unchallenged masters of this art during the period of colonization.

After cutting and polishing the gemstones were sent to the Muslim Jewelers and gem traders in the cities, who either exported them abroad or sold directly to the local rich and the tourists. The profits earned were phenomenal compared to the purchase price of the stone. In the year 1890, the amount earned by the country by the export of gemstones was in the region of 10 million rupees.


Development of the gem trade and industry after independence

After Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948 the status quo as far as exploitation of gem resources were concerned continued to be maintained and remained in the hands of enterprising private individuals. Besides the traditional gem-mining areas in the district of Ratnapura in the Sabaragamuwa Province, several new mines were discovered accidentally and opened for exploitation in other districts such as Matale in the Central Province, Matara in the Southern province and Badulla and Moneragala in the Uva Province. These mines were stumbled upon accidentally by the local residents either when the lands were opened up for agricultural purposes or for other development activities. An extensive scientific survey to discover prospective gem mining areas in the country have never been carried out either by the government or the private sector. The cutting and polishing of the gems still remained in the hands of the Moor craftsmen, who used age old hand-operated machines and techniques. Even up to the 1970s these traditional methods were still being used. Production of finished gems increased but most of them were smuggled out of the country, to the Asian markets of Hong Kong and Japan. Official exports of gemstones were merely a trickle of the large annual production, and the government was losing much needed revenue and foreign exchange.

The government of Sri Lanka stepped in to remedy the situation. The State Gem Corporation was formed in 1971, to regulate the gem trade, and incentives were given to the private gem dealers to channel their exports through the Corporation. One attractive incentive was the provision made for gem dealers to import brand new cars form part of their foreign exchange earnings. The scheme met with tremendous success and the foreign exchange earnings of the government from gem exports saw a phenomenal increase. The whole scheme was the brain child of the Finance Minister of the Sri Lankan government at that time, Dr. N. M. Perera, who was the leader of the Marxist-Trotskyite party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.

In the 1970s certain enterprising private dealers for the first time imported modern gem-cutting and polishing machines from Japan, and began the training of local craftsmen in the use of these machines. From then onwards the traditional hand-operated gem-cutting and polishing machines were gradually replaced by the electrically operated state-of-the-art cutting and polishing machines. Subsequently the State Gem Corporation too imported these machines and started training schools to train young men and women in the use of these machines. Besides these the Corporation also introduced short Gemology courses for beginners in the trade, teaching them the techniques of identifying gemstones. State sponsored gem-testing laboratories were also set up to provide gem-testing facilities for the dealers, for a nominal fee.

In the year 1993, the State Gem Corporation was replaced by the National Gem and Jewelry Authority. The vision of the National Gem And Jewelry Authority is to make Sri Lanka a world center for gems and jewelry. Besides, the NGJA says that its mission is to increase the supply of quality gems and jewelry, to satisfy the local and international market by promotion and development of the gem and jewelry industry through technological development, skill development and optimum use of available resources.


Services rendered by the National Gem and Jewelry Authority of Sri Lanka

The National Gem and Jewelry Authority of Sri Lanka is the only regulatory body of the gem and jewelry trade in Sri Lanka.

The authority exercises a quality control function in the trade, as it is required by law that all gem and jewelry exported from Sri Lanka should be compulsorily channeled through the export division of the National Gem and Jewelry Authority of Sri Lanka. This is in order to ensure that only genuine gems and jewelry are exported from Sri Lanka, boosting the profile of the country as a source of genuine and reliable gems and jewelry of very high quality. The gems and jewelry are tested for genuineness by a panel consisting of NGJA and Sri Lanka Customs gemologists.

Besides the Authority also maintains a state-of-the-art gem testing laboratory, providing gem-testing and certification facilities for a nominal fee for the local gem dealers, and completely free of charge for foreigners.

The Authority also exercises regulatory functions such as issuing licenses to gem dealers, miners, and lapidaries, and also licenses for gem auctions and gem-land auctions.

The Authority also provides the following services on payment :- a) Providing a brief opinion on the authenticity of gems b) Valuation of gems for banks c) Assaying and hallmarking of Jewelry d) Jewelry valuation reports for migrants e) Technical training for those engaged in the pawn broking trade.

The NGJA also provides services for the identification of primary and secondary gem deposits in potential gem-bearing areas in the country. In this connection it provides comprehensive scientific reports on gem occurrences, in state lands, state plantations and lands owned by private individuals. It also provides environmental impact assessments on gem exploration.

The Authority also provides consultancy services for jewelry manufacturing and gem-cutting.

The NGJA is also involved in research and training activities and offers the following training courses :- a) Gem identification course b) Gemology course c) Lapidary training course d) Jewelry designing course e) Jewelry manufacturing course f) Course on the heat treatment of milk corundum locally known as “Geuda.”

The NGJA has also facilitated export procedure by bringing together all arms involved in export activities under one roof at its headquarters building at No. 25, Galle Face Terrace, Colombo 3. The following facilities are situated on a common floor of the buildin :- a) Export Division b) Export Promotion Division C) Gem Testing and Certification Laboratory d) Sri Lanka Customs e) Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation Ltd. f) Post Office g) Air Forwarding Facilities.

Sri Lanka World Trade Center

The NGJA is also involved in the setting up and the management of the Sri Lanka Gem & Jewelry Exchange – SLGJE – the state-sponsored gem and jewelry gallery in Sri Lanka, situated at the World Trade Center, Level 4 & 5, East Low Block, Echelon Square, Colombo 01. The facilities available at the exchange are 1) A service center to promote and facilitate the export oriented gem and jewelry trade. 2) Gem testing and certification facilities offered by the NGJA. 3) 45 shops of members of the exchange offering a wide range of Gems and Jewelry for sale.

The NGJA also sponsors and organizers the Sri Lanka Pavilion at selected trade fairs and exhibitions held annually around the world.


References :-

1) Website of the National Gem and Jewelry Authority of Sri Lanka.

2) Website of the Sri Lanka Gem and Jewelry Exchange.

3) Website of the Gemmologist Association of Sri Lanka.

4) Encyclopaedia Britanica-2006

5) Encyclopedia Encarta Premium-2006

6) Muslims of Sri Lanka-Avenues to Antiquity(1986)-Dr M.A.M Shukri. Published by Jamiah Naleemia Institute, China Fort, Beruwala, Sri Lanka.

7)Muslims and the Trade of the Arabian Sea with Special Reference to Sri Lanka, from the Birth of Islam to the 15th Century-Dr Sirima Kiribamune.

8)Ceylon,Vol 1-Sir James Emerson Tennent, London (1859)

9)The Rehis of Ibn Batuta, translated by Mahdi Hussain, Baroda (1953)

10)The Travels of Marco Polo, translated by R.E. Latham, London (1958)

11)The Mahavamsa-translated by Wilhelm Geiger, London (1950)

12)The Sindbad Voyages-Tim Severin, London (1982)

13)A Sinhalese Embassy to Egypt-H.W. Codrington, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,Ceylon Branch,Vol XXVIII


6 thoughts on “History of the Gem Trade in Sri Lanka”

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    As a fresh jewelry-blog.internetstones.com user i just wanted to say hello to everyone else who uses this excellent website

  2. Its amazing web site stated with thorough history of gems in Srilanka. Surprise to note for the past 29 centuries Srilanka being the resource of offer of worlds best gems Ruby and Sapphire in particular. From King Solomon to Prince Charles-Diana. Its also interesting to note a particular location/district is being called as Ratnapura(place of gems).

  3. “History of the Gem Trade in Sri Lanka” ended up being a delightful blog
    post, can not wait to look at more of ur postings. Thanks for your effort -Florida

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