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The Mystic World of Gems

Ratnapura Gem Mine

Ratnapura, situated 63 miles (103 km) from Colombo, is the most famous gem - mining locality in Sri Lanka. In fact its name means City of Gems. All types of gems are found in Ratnapura - from the familiar to the exotic. Ratnapura gem mines are unique because a broad array of gems can be found in the same mine. These include: white, yellow, pink, orange, purple and blue star sapphires, ruby and star ruby, cat's eye, topaz, amethyst, moonstone, zircon in a broad spectrum including brown, yellow, orange, green, and colorless (known locally as ‘Matara diamond’—a misnomer), aquamarine, tourmaline, garnet, zircon, spinel, alexandrite, citrine, and the exotic ones such as patite, sinhalite, ekanite, enstatite, andalusite, and kornerupine.

Gem mines dot the town. There are no large mining companies, no deep shafts, and no complex machinery here. Instead, gem mining is a co-operative enterprise, consisting of small groups of men working around shallow pits in and besides paddy fields, and close to rivers.

Gem mining is an art form that has been trickling down for centuries. The process of mining is same as in the ancient times with the exception of water pumps and diesel powered generators.

The mines are dug deep, each with a series of interconnecting tunnels. A vertical shaft is dug downward until the illam is reached. Feeder tunnels extend within the pit. Down below, the illam assumes the shape of the spokes of a wheel, going in different directions.  Wood and bamboo timbers are used to support the shaft and tunnels. Excavation is carried out with basic implements, such as hoes and buckets. As the pit gets deeper, the walls are shored up by a framework of stout logs, arranged in crisscross fashion. The miners dig along the tunnels, load the gravel into knapsacks, and then climb to the surface with their loads.
Washing, screening, and sorting occur on the surface. Usually pumps operate full time to keep the tunnels free of water. When hauled to the surface, the soil is washed in convex, basket-like containers with running water. By moving the baskets with a rhythmic rotation the mud is washed away, leaving coarse white quartz gravel. Keeping the load wet, the washer methodically combs off layers of gravel, seeking the precious gem mineral. When a mine plays out, the tunnels are closed, the shaft filled, the buildings removed, and new topsoil spread over the area.