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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
Peace lifts Sri Lanka gem trade

By Frances Harrison
In Colombo

British Crown
A huge Sri Lankan sapphire adorns the British crown
Sri Lanka's oldest export industry - gemstones - seems to be getting a new boost from the peace process and the downturn in tourism in the Far East due to the Sars virus.

Legend has it King Solomon presented a Sri Lankan ruby to the Queen of Sheba, Marco Polo remarked on the island's gems while even the British crown sports a 400 carat Sri Lankan blue sapphire.

Now gem traders say there's been renewed interest in the country during the annual trade fair (Facets 2003).

One gem expert said in previous years they were lucky to have five to 10 buyers visit the fair while this year the president of the Gem and Jewellery Traders Association Macky Hasim said there were more than a hundred including a large Indian delegation.

Sri Lanka has decided to promote its most valuable stone - the blue sapphire - as the identity of its gem industry.

Polished argument

The argument is that the country produces the best sapphire in the world and they should be branded as a purely Sri Lankan product just like Ceylon Tea.

But others say it's a mistake to stress geography instead of quality - especially when many gemstones in Sri Lanka actually come from Madagascar and Tanzania.

Sri Lankan traders now visit Madagascar in particular to buy rough stones which they bring home for cutting and polishing and it's then difficult to establish their origin when they leave the island for export.

Car bomb attack in Colombo
Bomb threats had frightened off business
There are still more than 3,000 gem mines in Sri Lanka but some argue the future of the industry lies in developing a processing centre for high end precious stones which need specialised cutters with considerable experience.

And coloured sapphires are said to be especially difficult to cut in a way that maintains the weight of the gem as well as it's shape and makes best use of the natural colour concentrations found in the stone.

Driving forward

The National Training Institute turns out 250 gem cutters a year but says the current demand is huge - for 5,000 additional people a year.

If the industry is to make a rapid and successful transition from a supplier of raw stones to an internationally recognised processing centre of quality then there needs to be planning and funds from the government.

Gem exporters complain there are plenty of good ideas but nothing tangible actually happening on the ground to drive the industry forwards.

But for the time being business is good because buyers are no longer scared away by bomb threats in Colombo while the rival gem centres of Hong Kong and Bangkok are still affected by the negative impact of the Sars virus.

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