Though it feels now like many moons ago, I was lucky enough to spend the month of August soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of beautiful Sri Lanka. I began the jaunt catching up on quality family time and indulging in a spot of hammock swinging and page turning. But, I’m a jeweller – and there was no way I was going to travel all the way to the earth’s sapphire capital and not dive head-first into a glittering world of gemstones. Before long, my relaxing holiday became a research trip, and not one that I’ll be forgetting in a hurry.
Once known as Ratna-Dweepa, which can be translated as ‘Gem Island’, Sri Lanka has a booming gemstone industry with a long and colourful history. Thanks to our good friends at ethical gemstone supplier Nineteen48 and their Sri Lanka-based partner Crown Gems, I enjoyed a number of eye-opening excursions that sent me home to Brighton brimming with newfound knowledge. And a pocket full of sparkling new jewels.
With the guidance of Janaka Abayawickrama at Crown Gems, I was fortunate enough to gain access to one of the sapphire mines that Sri Lanka is famed for. There, I got to see the stones in the rough with my own eyes and even had the chance to mine some gems myself.
I also spent some time with an expert gemstone cutter (a skill otherwise known as lapidary) called Sanjeewa, who began teaching me some of the fascinating tricks of his trade. Let me tell you, Sanjeewa is one skilled artisan. I had my very first go at cutting a gemstone; a tense and long-winded experience that really put into perspective for me how hard lapidaries work. My first ever faceted sapphire took hours of intense work but watching an untreated lump of mineral transform into a smooth, glassy lozenge, glinting in the palm of my hand, was worth every second.
One day, I hauled myself out of bed in the small hours of the morning (4am, to be precise) to travel seven hours across the lush green island to the Facets International Gem and Jewellery Show. En route – my nose pressed against the car window – I was amazed to spot gemstone mine after gemstone mine dotted along the side of the road. What was a once-in-a-lifetime observation for me was simple day-to-day business in Sri Lanka.
At the jewellery show, my fatigue now overwritten by delirious excitement, I feasted my eyes on some of the most ridiculously gorgeous sapphires I’ve ever seen. The gems ranged from the deepest aquamarine blue to wintery grey and shocking shades of violet and fuchsia, twinkling away silently under the light. Mesmerisingly clear and cut to perfection by skilled lapidaries, only a stone’s throw from their original source, some of these opulent stones were a whopping four or five carats. Feeling like a kid in a sweet shop, I thought to myself that it just doesn’t get much better than this.
It was also great to network with jewellers, designers and traders alike, gaining a clearer understanding of Sri Lanka’s world-famous gemstone industry and establishing new relationships with international suppliers.
Naturally, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy some beautiful gems to take home to Lebrusan Studio. I chose a selection of small stones in hues of the rainbow and in a variety of cuts; vibrant little jewels that looked like lollipops and were simply begging to be set into a new collection of engagement rings or a show-stopping bespoke piece.
My time in Sri Lanka served overwhelmingly to remind me of why I adore doing what I do. The island has a rich history of gemstone cutting and mining, and what I saw in every person I met was knowledge. Today, Sri Lanka sets an example for the rest of the world with its brilliant sustainable policies for small-scale mining. As somebody who has been besotted with jewellery their entire life, it was really quite beautiful to be immersed in a culture that gems are such a huge part of.
Arabel Lebrusan is and award-winning ethical jeweller, and the founder of Lebrusan Studio