The sapphires of Sri Lanka remain the most beautiful in the world. Although Sri Lanka is a tiny country just below India, it is a developing, modern, and well-off state. Its main exports remain clothing and cash-crops, such as tea, but sapphires are one of its luxurious commodities. Just this summer, the largest cluster of star sapphires was discovered in Sri Lanka. Clocking in at 2.5 million carats and worth $100 million on the international market, it is nothing short of impressive.
Padparadscha, a pink-orange hue that refers to the lotus blossom, is one of the most coveted types of sapphire. It is also one of the most popular non-blue types of sapphire. Although it has a pink hue, it is distinct from the comparatively more common and much less prized pink sapphire.
Historically, Sri Lanka has been a prominent producer of sapphires. Even Ancient Rome was aware of the region's precious exports. Maritime trade brought sapphires, amethysts, silver, gold, and animals from India to Egypt.
The British colonized Sri Lanka in the late 18th century and kept it until 1948. Ceylon (the name Sri Lanka was called at the time) was known to Europeans for a long time, but it was only taken over during Britain's industrialization. Before Britain, however, there was the Dutch and before the Dutch (and during depending on the time period exactly) the Portuguese. Before, all of them were kingdoms and enjoyed independence from European overlords.
"A Dutch Gentleman," wrote that Ceylon had many "rubies, sapphires, white and blue topazes" that could be found in vast quantities.
Like all colonies, it had to produce value for its parent state. Ceylon surely had much to offer to the British. Coffee was a principal export of the colony until a fungal blight known as "rust" (hemileia vastatrix) virtually obliterated the industry. Thus, the colony swapped to tea. The initial introduction of tea produced little. In 1873, over 160 thousand pounds of tea was exported. In 1892, 71 million pounds of tea was exported. By 1901, 77 million pounds of tea had been shipped out for customers abroad.
Although not the first (or even the most extensive) treatise on gemstones, Robert Webster's Gems was his magnum opus and a monumental study on the gemstones of the world. He gave a less romantic study of Sri Lanka's gemstones while still recognizing the qualities that made them unique. Webster may go down in gem history just for the sheer breadth of his research alone.
Today, Sri Lanka remains one of the most developed economies and regions in South Asia. Although its main exports are clothes, tea, and rubber products, the precious sapphires of Sri Lanka will always have a special place in the world of gems.
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Ethirajan, Anbarasan. "Sri Lanka: World's Largest Star Sapphire Cluster Found in Backyard." BBC News, 27 July 2021, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57981046.
Fernandez, Julio, Sri Lanka: A Fresh Look at Market Opportunities for U.S. Companies, volume 3 no. 9. United States, U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002.
GIA, Padparadscha: What's in a Name?
Grande, Lance, and Allison Augustyn. Gems and Gemstones: Timeless Natural Beauty of the Mineral World. Illustrated, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Sidebotham, Steven. Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (Volume 18) (California World History Library). First, University of California Press, 2019.
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Official Handbook & Catalogue of the Ceylon Courts: With Map and Illustrations. Sri Lanka, H.C. Cottle, 1893.
Webster, Robert. Gems: Their Sources, Descriptions And Identification. London: Butterworths, 1962.