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The island of Sri Lanka, also known as "Ceylon" has a long heritage for gem-mining and trading that dates back some 2,000 years. Sri Lanka is a tropical island situated in the Indian Ocean, off the southeastern tip of India. Sri Lanka has earned its namesake as the "Island of Gems," or "Gem Island" (Ratna Dweepa), with its abundance of corundum gems, chrysoberyl and alexandrite, garnet, moonstone, peridot, spinel, topaz, tourmaline, and zircon.

Ancient mariners celebrated the gems of "Taprobane," and their expeditions fueled the story-tellers of the Arabian Nights and their fables of the jewels of "Serendib." During the Middle Ages, travelers told of the "sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets, and other costly stones" of Ceylon, and of the ruby which belonged to the Kandyan king of Serendib, having "a span in length, without a flaw, and brilliant beyond description".

During the 16th century, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama said of Sri Lanka: "Ceylon has all the fine cinnamon of the Indies and the best sapphires." The gem-trading center for Sri Lanka is the town of Ratnapura (Ratnapoora) which is Singhalese for "Gem Town," located 100 kilometers southeast of the capital city of Colombo.

Gems are found in abundance within the alluvial plains at the base of the Saffragam mountains, with notable gem-bearing deposits in the flat country around Ballangodde, south-east of Ratnapura.

Sri Lanka is perhaps best known for its fine sapphire. Sapphire from Sri Lanka occurs in a wide range of hues from orange-yellow (Padparadscha) to cornflower-blue ("Ceylon blue"), green, orange, pink, purple, yellow (pushparaga) and white sapphire. Sri Lanka's white "Geuda sapphire" is a semi-opaque milk-white stone that can be heated to a deep blue.

Gem Mining in Sri Lanka

The government works in cooperation with land/farm owners to manage and allocate mining rights to their land in exchange for a percentage of the profit, should any gemstone be found on the property. The government sees to it that the land is not spoiled by mining operations, through strict regulation of low-impact mining proceedures.

Gem mining, or "gemming" in Sri Lanka is primarily from alluvial secondary deposits found in gem-bearing river gravels (illam), in ancient flood plains and streams that are now covered with productive farm land and terraced rice paddies. To access the gem-bearing gravel, 5 to 50 foot deep mining pits are hand-dug by teams of several workers, pumping out any ground-water as it enters the hole from below. When the pit is dug to the correct depth, tunnels are dug horizontally in several directions to minimize surface degradation.

Sluicing with conical-shaped baskets is used to extract the gems from the illam clay, gravel and sand slurry. The basket is swirled around until the heavier stones (Jathi) settle to the bottom of the basket.

The Ratnapura region was the first locality to mine sapphire on the island. Significant gem-mines throughout Sri Lanka are the Bibile sapphire mines (central), Elehara Gem Fields (near Ratnapura), Metiyagoda moonstone mines (south-west coastal), Morawaka (south-central), Nuwara Eliya mines (mountainous tea plantation area), and Pelmadulla sapphire mines (15 km south-east of Ratnapura).

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