Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is a large island off the southern tip of India. The island is actually briolette shaped which suits this gemstone rich country. Sri Lanka itself means "magnificent island". The Indians call it Ratnadeep or Gem Island. Both are well deserved for it is truly a treasure island.

The flawless Sri Lankan Logan Sapphire 
Second largest blue sapphire (423 carats) in the world
Smithsonian Institute

Sri Lanka's natural wealth has been the stuff of legends for thousands of years. My past post Legend of the Valley of Diamonds is about the second voyage of Sinbad where Sri Lanka is the likely setting for the story. In the sixth voyage, Sinbad was shipwrecked yet again. He built a raft and floated down a river, whose banks and bed were littered with precious stones. He then journeys to the city Serendib (old Arabic/Persian name for Sri Lanka) and makes his fortune. Although Sinbad didn't exist, the description of a gem laden river is based on actual accounts by 14th century Muslim travelers.

The mining and lapidary methods and equipment haven't changed much in centuries. Open cast and mechanized mining techniques are banned to minimize environmental damage and to protect a finite resource. Little huts covering sapphire mines dot the rural area around Ratnapura, the City of Gems. Many are family affairs but others are run like coops where several men share the work and the mine's output.

Gem Mine, Sri Lanka picture by Erickson Tissera

This video shows the workings of a sapphire mine in Sri Lanka. How do they know where to dig? According to Victoria Finlay, the author of Jewels: A Secret History the actual method of divination involves drilling small bore holes in the ground. Metal rods are inserted and rotated hard at different depths. If the rods come up scratched, they know they have hit a sapphire deposit. That's because corundum or sapphire is very hard - it's 9 on the Mohs' Scale, just below diamond.

The mine shafts can be deep (40 metres or about 15 stories) considering there is no elevator nor ladder. The miners use bamboo tied to the shaft sides with rope for grip in order to reach the gem gravel layer or illam.

The smiling chap below is using the sapphire mine telephone system - bamboo tubes! However, one modern concession is the generator which is used to ventilate and remove dangerous gases as well as operate water pumps.

The underground miners are far better off than the river "gem fishermen". The latter spend their working lives wet and cold trawling for gemstones in the river bed. Check out my past post River Dragging for Gems in Sri Lanka.

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