Hot on the Trail of Gemstones
It’s a warm afternoon in a field outside Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. Looking around, you notice unusual plants — Sri Lanka’s famous tea — and, something far more apparent, a multitude of mining shafts, some just a few feet apart. On closer inspection, you see something unexpected: a bespectacled westerner, hip deep in a pit of muddy water. Like a seasoned professional, he dips a broad, finely woven basket into the water, lifts it and shakes it from side to side. He carefully examines the colorful contents and dumps them in a container on the next to the pit. He’s having the time of his life washing rough sapphires. Meet Gary Venable, Stuller’s Gemstone Buyer.
How did he get there?
The day before, Gary flew into Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city located on the western coast. He didn’t stay long. A hired car service — a beat up van — had been sent to collect him at the airport. The driver miraculously threads his way through the densely congested streets and heads out of the city into the highlands to the southeast. The flight from Bangkok took only 3 1/2 hours. Gary’s ride to Ratnapura will take four hours, traveling along narrow and increasingly dilapidated roads.
“City of Gems”
Ratnapura isn’t exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But within the gemstone community, it has a large reputation. Located near Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s tallest mountain, and the Sinharaja Rain Forest, this small city of 53,000 sits at the center of an area particularly rich in sapphires. The city’s name means “city of gems.”
Making The Cut
Gary’s destination is the five-story gemstone factory. The business owner buys sapphire rough from the individually owned mines outside the city and employs about 100 people who transform it into faceted gems. Good cutting makes all the difference in the world, and these cutters for this business produce exceptional results. Their newest product round, precision-cut sapphire in blue, pink, and yellow, impresses (We now carry it.) He spends two days making his selections, and then he has a field trip in mind — one he takes each visit.
When It Rains
Southwest Sri Lanka averages 100 inches of rain per year, with most of it falling from May through September. When the storms begin, the mines can flood, sending workers home and keeping visitors out. Fortunately, this season is almost over, and Gary wants to visit one of the mines.
Sri Lanka strictly controls mining to favor traditional practices that date back 2,000 years. The regulatory bureau issues most licenses for small land parcels of ½ acre to 2 acres. These claims support from two to four shafts. A mine can provide years of income for a family and the workers. Of course, some mines play out in just a few years. Though mechanized mining operations would find traditional methods too slow and unprofitable, they have less impact on the environment and provide continuous employment for 60,000 to 70,000 miners.
When the light goes out
Rough beams support the shafts that reach down 15 to 75 feet to the layer of gemstone gravel and dirt — illam — located directly above the earth’s mantle. In a timeworn tradition, the workers keep a lighted candle at the bottom of the shaft. When it goes out, there’s no oxygen left, and they get to the top as quickly as possible.
Gary can’t resist
The underground workers use hand tools to extract the illam. They load it into a cloth bucket then above ground workers hoist it to the surface and pour the illam into a wheelbarrow for transport to a washing pit. Workers stand in the pit and use finely woven bamboo baskets to wash away the dirt and collect the gemstone gravel. From the moment Gary saw the washing pit, he wanted in. And sure enough, each visit he wades back into the water for more “hands-on” gemstone experience.
More about Gary Venable
Most days you’ll find Gary tweezers in hand, loupe poised, examining stones in his office, and explaining everything he knows about them to anyone who joins him. He’s a born teacher, eager to share his knowledge. And if he’s not examining gemstones, he’s fulfilling many of his managerial responsibilities. These include overseeing Stuller, Thailand, our Bangkok office with 28 employees: buyers, QA staff, and cutters. He stays in touch by email, text, phone, and three annual visits, each a whirlwind of buying. Twice a year he adds Sri Lanka to his itinerary.
There’s always a twinkle in Gary’s eyes, and mirth plays at the corners of his mouth, true signs of someone with a zest for living — or joie de vivre as we say here in South Louisiana. He loves to travel and welcomes new experiences. His job lets him do both. His gemstone buying adventures have taken him all over the world with stops including South America, Australia, Europe, and, most frequently, Asia.