One of the world’s most beautiful and exotic islands, Sri Lanka, (formerly Ceylon) lies just below the southern tip of India. This pear-shaped bit of tropical paradise, about the size of Sicily, is a tourist’s delight offering British teahouses, rubber plantations, and gem mines.
Marco Polo wrote of his visit in 1292: “I want you to understand that the island of Ceylon is, for its size, the finest island in the world, and from its streams comes rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethyst and garnet.” Little has changed since Marco Polo’s time except that Sri Lanka faces overpopulation and a faltering economy.
Its gemstones, however, seem to occur in endless supply. Known as the “Jewel Box of the Indian Ocean,” Sri Lanka, like possibly no other locality on earth, has yielded precious stones and fine gems in a great profusion of gem species and varieties. The island was known in the ancient world as Taprobane (copper colored in Greek). Native Veddahs, bathing in smooth flowing streams, noticed colored pebbles scattered in sandy bottoms. It was not until 500 B.C. that conquering Buddhists from northern India also discovered gems in the rivers and began to set rough stones into crude jewelry. They bartered stones with traders from abroad and eventually the treasures found their way to the marketplaces of Asia and Europe. Ancient Greek and Chinese historians referred to the beautiful gems of Ceylon, and King Solomon reportedly wooed the Queen of Sheba with Ceylonese precious stones.
The crown jewels of royalty all over the world contain extraordinary spinels, sapphires, and zircons mined from Sri Lanka streams. The Imperial Treasury of the Soviet Union houses a 400-carat red spinel of great beauty which was once given to Catherine the Great. The British Imperial Crown features a giant oval-cut spinel (previously supposed to be a ruby), known as the “Black Prince.” Crowns in the Green Vaults of Dresden are covered with sapphires from Sri Lanka.