A glimpse into the world of a sapphire mine in Sri Lanka

We are very lucky in that we have a “friend in the sapphire mining business”! Our friend Sheahan is a partial owner of a few mines in Sri Lanka, as well as a long time gem dealer. He recently sat down with us for a 2 hour long discussion of mining practices, child labor,stone treatments, and worker’s conditions and pay. This was such a treat for us, we thought we would share it with you, and hopefully dispel some common misconceptions about overseas gemstone mining.

In Sri Lanka, the government auctions off mining rights for long time landowners, small family industry for hundreds of years. Mahatma Gandhi often talked about the “cottage industry”, and this is a prime example of his ideas. The happy coexistence of farmer, mine owners, and the government is evident in Sri Lanka.

“Spinning was the cottage industry years ago, and if the millions are to be saved from starvation, they must be enabled to reintroduce spinning in their homes and every village must repossess its own weaver.” Gandhi 1920
Sheahan’s lease on his current mine is 2 years, and after that time is up, the mine is closed up. If it is in a crop field, they are replanted after they are filled. No mine is left open, and all efforts are made to restore the previous landscape, in fact there are fabled mines from the past that are “lost”, not to be found again.

Sheahan’s mine is in Ratnapura, in southern Sri Lanka. Many of the people who mine are Buddhist, and the mining regions are typically much nicer than the cities. The mining areas in Ratnapura are peaceful, and quite beautiful.

Sri Lanka, and specifically the gemstone rich Ratnapura region, is a delta of sorts, with a sapphire rich gravel buried 7-30 meters below the soil, in old river beds.

Sheahan’s “Pearch”, which is his space to mine, is approximately 5000 square feet. It is a traditional vertical mine, so it is a 10×10 bowl that is 50 feet deep. The mines then have tunnels extending horizontally out, beneath the farmlands so the disruptions to the fertile fields is at a minimum. In the photo, look closely to see the walls of the mine shaft, they are comprised of grass and palm leaves the creation of which is an industry in and of itself. The workers who create these walls are paid highest. The top layers of soil, while not containing sapphires are rich in other gems such as black tourmaline, quartz, zircon, and spinel. Care is taken with this earth to be sorted and mined as well, so nothing is overlooked.

As far as working conditions, part of the “cottage industry” concept ensures that the people are well taken care of. Instead of large industry exploiting it’s workers with poor conditions and low wages, the miners and the stone cutters are very well paid and taken care of.

As far as child labor goes, it is illegal to have anyone under the age of 18 working in the mines. Schools in Sri Lanka are free, so children are in school during working hours, not working in the mines.

In Sheahan’s mine, his own workers are particularly well taken care of. They get 1/3 of the yield from the mine, which is amazing in the area. The cutters he uses are also paid well above industry standards, and he does so to instill trust and get a much higher quality stone.

A well cut sapphire can be amazingly beautiful, where a poorly cut stone will have no life or beauty.

Typical payment for having the rough stones cut is good, but Sheahan offers between 6-10x the standard rate of pay for cutting. This higher rate of pay attracts the best cutters, and ensures that his stones will showcase the true beauty of the mineral, and therefore making it more valuable. The conditions for the stone cutters are excellent, with well lit and comfortable work shops.

Most sapphires and rubies are heat treated, and it is an industry accepted, permanent treatment of stones. Treatment can improve the clarity and color of a stone. There are untreated stones available, and the only way to know for sure is if they come with certification from the mine and stone dealer. We have heat treated as well as certified non-treated stones available to us, and can show the differences in cost as well as appearances of the stone accordingly.

While heat treatment of sapphires and rubies is acceptable and very common, there is another type of treatment showing up in yellow, orange, and red stones. This is beryllium treatment, which is illegal in Sri Lanka. Even though it is illegal, stones will be treated this way as long as people still are willing to pay for them. Knowing the stone miners and dealers is important, as this is the best way to ensure quality stones that are not beryllium treated.

We feel very honored to know Sheahan, and to have been given the opportunity to learn so much about a fascinating part of the world and how it touches our industry. As most know, we at Goldmine Design make each piece one at a time, with stones that are chosen individually. When we are looking at stones from around the world, it is so interesting to know the story behind them. Our small goldsmith’s shop combined with stones from the small mine ensure that our customers support individual artists and their families. We can think globally and buy locally!

A stone cutter hard at work

A stone cutter hard at work

In the city, buying and selling rough stones

in the city, buying and selling rough stones

Looking down the shaft of the mine. Note the side walls, made of grass and palm.

Looking down the shaft of the mine. Note the side walls, made of grass and palm.

Going through the dirt excavated from the mine. Nothing gets missed!

Going through the dirt excavated from the mine. Nothing gets missed!

Inspecting a lovely rough sapphire.

Inspecting a lovely rough sapphire.

Looking at a stone in the busy market

Looking at a stone in the busy market

The beginnings of an amazing stone and an beautiful piece of jewelry!

The beginnings of an amazing stone and an beautiful piece of jewelry!