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Sri lanka land of gems

In the ancient world, Sri Lanka was known by many names. Second century Greek geographers called it Taprobane.  Third and fourth century Arabic and Persian traders referred to Sri Lanka as Serendib. (From which we find the origin of the word serendipity.)  In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese gave Sri Lanka the name Ceilao when they arrived. When the British arrived and claimed the land as a British Colony, the Portuguese name was translated into English as Ceylon.  The island became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.

Geologically, it has been estimated that nearly 25% of the total land area of Sri Lanka is potentially gem bearing.  The highlands of the island are especially laden with complex gemstone deposits. are most abundant in the gem fields such as Ratnapura, Elahera, Walawe and Ballangoda. There are also many potential gem-bearing areas awaiting exploration. It is quite likely that the jewel box of Sri Lanka will continue to produce its precious treasures for centuries to come.

The Long Heritage of Sri Lankan Gems

There is a long and rich history of producing and trading precious gems within the eastern world.  Looking through historical and fictional writing, it is easy to establish the longstanding connection of Sri Lanka to this gem industry.  The rich and deep cultural connection, has even earned the island the title “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”  Merchants of the coastal towns in Arabia grew so rich, that Greek and Roman historians observed that their doors, walls, and even the roofs of their houses were beautifully inlaid with “ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones from the land of Serendib (Ceylon).”

Legend says that King Solomon of the bible wooed the queen of Sheba with precious stones taken from the “paradise island” of Sri Lanka.  In the second century, astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, recorded that “beryl and sapphires were the mainstay of Sri Lanka’s gem industry”.  The awe-inspiring stories of Sinbad the Sailor are full of rich accounts of Sri Lankan gems and gem deposits, bearing further evidence of the influence of the island’s gemological bounty on the writing and story-telling of the eastern cultures.


In his classic work, ‘Divestment dou Monde’ (Description of the World), Marco Polo, the medieval Venetian traveler and chronicler (c. 1254 – 1324) wrote of the abundance of gemstones during his 1292 visit to Sri Lanka. “I want you to understand that the island of Ceylon is, for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams comes rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst and garnet”.  Sixteenth century Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama noted that “Ceylon has all the fine cinnamon of the Indies and the best sapphires.”

In 1344 Ibn Battuta, the reputed Islamic scholar and traveler  in his travelogue wrote that “gems are found in all localities of the island.  All the women of the possess necklaces of precious stones of diverse colors.  They wear them on their 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”.

In the seventeenth century, sailor Robert Knox wrote, “In this Island are several sorts of precious stones, which the king for his part has enough of and so cares 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 cats eyes 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.”

Indeed, the island is considered by many to be one of the oldest sources of sapphires in the world.  Perhaps Dr. Eduard J. Gubelin the famous gemologist, summed it best when he said: “The island of Ceylon was the world’s first source of sapphires and remained the premier supplier of these gem-quality stones for centuries. No sapphire in the world can equal that obtained in Sri Lanka”