Stamp News 262
Blue Sapphire - the national gemstone
The Blue Sapphire was recently declared as the National Gemstone of Sri Lanka. This is in addition to the National Flower (nil manel) and the National Tree (na). To mark the announcement, a Rs 4.50 stamp was issued on 2 October 2003.

This is not the first occasion when gems have been featured on stamps. Four stamps titled ‘Gems of Sri Lanka’ were released on 16 June 1976.(Stamp News 24)

The Blue Sapphire belongs to the Corundum family. While pure Corundum is colourless, the red variety is called ‘Ruby’. Blue Corundum is called Blue Sapphire. ‘Pathmaraga’ is another variety. There are others identified by the different colours like Yellow Sapphire, Pink Sapphire, Green Sapphire and so on.

Sri Lanka is world famous for Blue Sapphires with most of the largest sapphires in museum collections from around the world being from here. They are widespread and occur mostly among the secondary sedimentary deposits as water worn pebbles.

Logan Sapphire weighing 423 carats considered as the second largest blue sapphire as well as Bismark Sapphire (27x21.7x15.5mm) both of which have been donated to the famous Smithsonian Institute in America had been found in Sri Lanka. Records also indicate that an 856 carat blue sapphire was found in Hakgamuwa in the Ratnapura district in 1998 while in 1999 a 8042 carat blue sapphire surfaced in a gem pit in Pelmadulla. Every year such blue sapphires have been found in and around Ratnapura.

Sri Lanka has been identified as the largest supplier of top quality, large blue sapphires of natural colour to the world market. Flawless, transparent blue sapphires of deep blue colour are highly priced. The most desired tone of colour is an intense cornflower blue with a fine velvety lustre.

Sri Lanka has been famous for its gems from ancient times. Sri Lanka’s gemstones have been an important commodity of trade as early the First Century A.D. In the travels of Marco Polo (13th century), reference is made to a ruby that belonged to the King of Seilan (Ceylon). “It is about a palm in length and as thick as a man’s arm to look at. It is the most resplendent object upon earth. It is quite free from flaw and as red as fire. Its value is so great that a price for it in money would hardly be named at all,” he describes.

Most gems are mined from pits. A unique feature in Sri Lanka is that a variety of different gems can be found in the same pit. From time immemorial, minerals have been washed down from their original mountain locations to the lowlands and valleys. The precious stones have been deposited in rough water-borne gravel called ‘illam’ which have been buried beneath a layer of alluvial soil. To reach the ‘illam’, workers dig through the surface alluvium. The pit can range in depth from a few feet to anything over 30 feet. The walls of the pit are supported by a framework of logs and planks arranged in criss-cross fashion.

After reaching the bottom, the clay is taken into baskets and sifted in rotary fashion till the clay and other material are washed away and the stones remain. The gems are picked from among them. The men hired to dig the ‘illam’ and pick the gems have to be trustworthy since there is always the possibility of a worker hiding the gems. Often they are said to swallow the gems.

The gems are taken to dealers who examine them and offer a price depending on the quality. Bargaining goes on since the dealers would always try to buy them cheaply and generally do not indicate the their real value.

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