Gemming in Ceylon – a reprint by H. V. Sardha Ratnavira

Thank you to Pala International’s Bill Larson for including this article in his newsletter in September 2014. It is interesting to see how little has changed in the last 75 years in Sri Lanka’s gem mining industry.

The following brief overview of gem mining in what is now known as Sri Lanka was written by H. V. Sardha Ratnavira, gemological student. It appeared in the Winter 1939 edition of Gems & Gemology (Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 51–52; used with permission). Ratnavira is the father of Gamini Ratnavira and was the first Asian to qualify at the Gemological Institute of America, in 1937–1938, when it was still in Los Angeles. The images are from “Ceylon’s Gem Mines,” included in Peter Bancroft’s classic Gem and Crystal Treasures.

Nestling among the peaks of the Sabragamuwa district lies Ratnapura, famous throughout the world as the city of gems. Star sapphires, blue sapphires, rubies, cat’s-eyes and a large variety of other gems, of quantity unlimited, are found here. It is here that one finds the gemming industry of Ceylon at its best. Here one comes across many gem pits, all working at full speed, producing stones that will form the basis of some of the finest jewelry that Ceylon offers.

If one be interested in gem mining, he first has to obtain a license to work a gem pit. An application must be forwarded to the Government Agent of the district, who will refer the matter to the Ratemahatmaya, or Headman. The matter does not end here, for the Police Vidane (police officer) must be informed, too, that he may make inquiries as regards the intended site of the gem pit. If the site belongs to the government, permission will not be granted. These inquiries naturally cannot be rushed, the usual period extending from two to three months. The gem mining business is carried on mainly by the Singhalese.

Gems & Gemology cover image

Once the application has been passed the applicant consults an astrologer as to the time most auspicious for the opening ceremony. The method of choosing the site is not done in a scientific manner. Usually the site is chosen near a spot which has been well known to produce gems, and a trial is first made by digging a small section of the ground. An experienced man can always tell whether the site is workable, usually by the presence of gem-bearing rock known as “Thiruvana” in Singhalese. Before work is started, prayers and offerings are given to the “Powers That Be” beseeching success in the undertaking. This ceremony is performed on the site. The first spade of gravel is turned by the owner of the gem pit and then the miners start to work on it. These miners are enrolled from the ranks of the villagers of that district, who, of course, have a wide experience in this type of work.

As regards the shares, the majority belong to the owner, the remainder being divided among the miners. The value of the shares depends on the quality as well as the quantity of the stones found. The owner sometimes furnishes food, but this usually is supplied by the miners themselves. In the case when the owner pays for the meals, the miner returns half of his share. This system is called in Singhalese “karu howl,” karu meaning laborer or workmen, and howl meaning a share. Sometimes the owner spends hundreds of rupees and does not get anything in return.

Gem Shaft photo image
Looking down 25 meters into a gem shaft. (Photo: Gerhard Becker)

The pit is usually dug about four feet square and three to six feet deep, making room for two or three miners to work. This type is dug only if the gem-bearing gravel is found near the surface. On the other hand, the gravel may be found deep down, and if this be the case the pits are dug about six feet square and ten to twenty feet deep, or perhaps even more. If the soil be loosely packed, especially in deep pits, a scaffolding is erected inside the pit to prevent the soil from sliding in. This precaution must be taken, as very serious accidents have occurred. If a number of pits be found close together, tunnels are construded connecting them together. One disadvantage of a deep pit is that water gushes in due to the tapping of hidden springs. This water is bailed out by an especially constructed winch, a number of buckets being attached to the connecting rope. The miners go on digging until they encounter either a blackish rock called “ralu ratta” or a rocky gravel of whitish color called “thiruvana.” This is an indication to the miner that the next layer must contain gems. This layer is called “illam.” If after the illam they come to a layer of clay, called “malawa,” they do not dig any further.

The illam is the most important layer and is broken up by the miners who use an iron rod called the “illam kura.” The miners usually wear only a loincloth, and a handkerchief is tied tightly around the head, the handkerchief being used to prevent the debris getting amongst the hair. One feels sorry for the miners, for their work is hard; at the end of the day’s labor they are covered from head to foot with mud. But they are a happy-go-lucky crowd and may often be heard singing while they work.

The gravel is brought to the surface in baskets and collected in an adjacent spot. When no more illam is obtainable the owner chooses an auspicious day for the washing and sorting. Until this time the heap of gravel is covered with leaves and well guarded. The usual custom on that day is to prepare “milk rice” (rice boiled with coconut milk) which is eaten on the spot just before the gravel is washed. If the pit be near a river, the gravel is transferred to the bank, where it is washed. When there is no river close by, a trench is cut near the dumped material and filled with water, the gravel being washed in this trench in large baskets. During the washing process the owner is always on the spot as the miners sometimes cannot resist the temptation to hide a good stone. As the gems are heavier than the gravel they remain at the bottom of the baskets and the sediment is washed away. The rough stones are then given to the owner, who decides with the miners whether the stones are to be auctioned or sold to a gem merchant. The money obtained from this transaction is then divided, the owner taking his share and the rest being divided as previously arranged.

Gemming a River photo image
“Gemming” a river. Disturbing the gravels with poles causes waste to float away, leaving gems to be gathered from river bed. (Photo: Edward Gübelin)

When gems are found in streams the procedure is slightly different. A dam is constructed across the stream leaving a space in the middle of about five feet, in front of which a wooden log is fixed. The water rushes over this log and the miners standing in front with long-handled “mamoties” drag the gravel toward them. The sand is washed away and the illam is collected in the trough. As soon as the illam is noticed the miners either dive down with baskets and collect the illam or continue using their mamoties to remove it. The washing is, of course, done on the spot.