With the sapphire prospectors of Sri Lanka

For years I had been tempted to visit Sri Lanla - formerly called Ceylon - and explore the possibility of buying the beautiful sapphires. There are many sapphire deposits in which excellent facettable stones are found, but only very rarely good crystals (e.g. Ilakaka in Madagascar, Montana in the USA). There are also other rarities such as chrysoberyl, taafeite, serandibit, etc.)

In June 2019 we set off, my longtime friend and companion on many trips, Klaus Knappe and I. Our destination was the small town of Radnapura, about 100 km SE of Colombo, the nominal capital of the island. There were almost no foreigners, since shortly before, in April 2019, several attacks with more than 250 dead had shaken the island kingdom. In our hotel in Radnapura we were the first guests after these acts of violence.

already on the first day we visited the small streets where the precious stone trade takes place. Almost the entire town lives from finding, cutting and selling gemstones. According to a report

the street of gem dealers in Radnapura

According to a large Sri Lanka newspaper, there are around 1800 prospecting sites around Radnapura. We were immediately surrounded by dozens of traders, many brown hands reaching out to us with crystals. People quickly realized that we were only interested in crystals and not faceted stones. Since the situation quickly became very confusing, we moved the purchase to our hotel. The owner kindly arranged the process so that a seller would come every half hour and we could view the crystals and negotiate at our leisure. However, the first minerals we acquired were corundum crystals in matrix from Wellawaya. Not transparent, but beautiful spindle-shaped crystals

Corundum crystal on matrix from Wellawaya, Sri Lanka

neatly prepared from the bedrock. In addition to corundum, other minerals from near the town of Kolonne were also offered, including very good crystals of dunilite, a new mineral from the fayalite-forsterite series (i.e. olivine), ferroedenite, black spinel ("Ceylonite") and very nice ones and large zircon crystals.

Acquiring the sapphires turned out to be very difficult. The asking prices for reasonably pretty crystals were on our terms

blue and yellow sapphire crystals in the Tyoan spindle shape

excessively excessive. For crystals of the two sapphires shown above, prices of EUR 1500 each were initially called for. It took days for the asking prices to reach a level that seemed acceptable to us. However, we were not able to acquire many of the pieces, some of which were really good, because the asking prices did not seem reasonable to us. For example, a crystal cluster of blue sapphire, approx. 8 cm high, not facetable, should cost EUR 12,000, too much for resale.

Most of the sapphires were yellow or two-tone, blue-yellow. The much smaller one was blue. Rarely were the crystals also of a beautiful deep red. Almost all had the well-known spindle-shaped habit, very rarely there were twins according to the Japanese law (known from rock crystal). However, these were delicacies.

a Japanese twin a deep red sapphire

After the first day, the prices started to crumble a bit, but they were still very high. Many of the good crystals were just too expensive to resell in our opinion, so we didn't.

In addition to the sapphires, we were also offered good chrysoberyl crystals (as triplets). However, we also found these extremely overpriced, especially since they were not facetable in the slightest. Other minerals on offer were mostly not from Sri Lanka but from Tanzania, Madagascar and Myanmar.

Of course, we were also interested in the mines where the gemstones are found. Unfortunately, it was the southwest monsoon season and most of the prospecting holes were not worked due to the frequent and sometimes extremely heavy rain. However, our enterprising hotelier found a mine in the valley of the great river Wey Ganga and arranged a visit. The small video gives an insight into the search for the sapphires.

one of the numerous small shafts in the river valley

After a week's stay in Radnapura we were able to acquire a number of beautiful crystals. However, when we asked what the export regulations were like, we received very different answers: no problem at all; or: facetable crystals are not allowed to leave the country; or: Present bills and bank receipts for currency exchange. All wrong. With cut or rough stones one has to go to the State Gem Institute in Colombo and there one has to ask a licensed gem exporter to apply for the export at the Gem Authority. Beforehand, a list of the stones must be created with names, weight and value of the stones. The Gems Board examines this list and calculates the fees and the royality (duty to the state according to the value of the stones). In our case, this took 5 hours. We found out later that every stone was checked.

You can leave after paying the fee. You will then receive the sealed package at the airport at customs after presenting your boarding pass.

There is no stress with this approach.

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