The story of the unseen in the gem industry of Sri Lanka
By Medha de Alwis
Last week, we brought to you the tears, smiles, hopes, and dreams of those who shed their sweat and blood in the cold dark mines to bring lustre to the Emerald Island.
Today, we bring to you yet another spectrum of unseen, unheard of, and unrecognised skilled persons who work just as hard to contribute to the lustre and glory.
Tell us, have you come across gem cutters, polishers, carvers, gem jewellers, gemmologists, lapidary technicians, licence givers, valuers, research officers, gem brokers, dealers, exporters, merchants, and/or lecturers in diverse gemmology subjects such as colour grading, heat treatment, and gem fashion? Maybe you have, maybe you have not. But today, we will let you meet all of them through us.
- Passion and fashion
According to the many individuals we interviewed, we can divide the lot into two main categories – those in the gem industry for passion and the others in the same for fashion. Interestingly, it was such a thin line to segregate the two, and sometimes, one crosses over to the other. Most of the time, some have entered into the gems industry for fashion – financial, social, or cultural – but had stayed on as they developed a passion for it. Interesting? Let’s ponder more.
Some have a prejudice that those in the field of gems are rich and have a certain social recognition due to their solid financial status. Yet, almost every individual we spoke to expressed a sense of financial vulnerability. There were some who had entered the field to earn money they would otherwise not have earned, and some others who had to optimally utilise what they have.
We earlier drew your attention to how and what miners feel towards having no identity and being degradingly known as “pathal karayo”. Technicians too seem to share more or less the same view. Although they work with gems that are worth a fortune, there was hardly an instance that a commission of it was paid to the technician.
You may find the best gem in a mine, but it is a technician who makes it shine. The price of a gem is, to a great length, based on the technique used to cut and polish. How about the long hours of bending at the lapidary? How do these technicians come about? How are they paid? What do they gain? These are some common questions that pop into our minds.
- Finances, oh yes!
Did you think that cutters and polishers of gems are paid higher than cutters and polishers of wood? The average salary of a gem technician is Rs. 25,000, and this is the very reason why the industry struggles to gain and retain good technicians, according to 63-year-old Herbert Ranaweera who has been an instructor in gemmology for over 35 years. He had been instrumental in the prestigious pinnacle of Mirisaweti Stupa.
Having joined the State Gem Corporation far back in 1976, Ranaweera has seen the industry in many of its phases. “The state could do better in positively intervening the problems that gem technicians face,” he pointed out, one of the different opinions held by many we spoke to on the subject.
- Gender bias
It is shocking to find out that there are hardly any women in the field in terms of miners and merchants, which are the lowest and highest rungs, respectively. There are cutters, valuers, and researchers, but the numbers are drastically going down. Speaking to Ranaweera, he said that 50% of the technicians in the 1980s were female and it has gone down to 25% now. When asked for reasons behind the drop, the wide choice of jobs, mainly in the garment sector, came forward as the most prominent.
Padmini Gunawardana, the wife of Ranaweera, who has shared the world of gems for 38 years with her husband, added a different aspect to the story. “There are three places in Ratnapura, namely under the Clock Tower, Denuwavata, and Ambagahayata, where mid-level gem merchants gather daily for business from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Except for a European or Chinese woman now and then, you would never see a Sri Lanka woman working there,” said Padmini.
When asked why, she responded: “Well, how can a woman just go there with stones. And then we have the mines. It is not possible for a woman to go to a mine and negotiate, is it?” This information came as a shock in an age where women venture into all sorts of businesses.
We found out that education was mainly of three sectors. Manju* had never sat down and studied gems. “All that my grandfather, father, uncles, and brothers talk about is gems. I was able to identify stones since I was eight years old,” she said. She is the proud owner of an impressive shop on the Main Street of Denuwavita where the entries street is lined with gem showrooms on both sides.
Sarath Amarasena* is a lecturer in gemmology at a state university. He agreed that traditional knowledge is important and vast. However, he is of the opinion that the gem industry in Sri Lanka has not moved forward because streamlined education such as university degrees were introduced much later. “(It is) something that they can manage with the knowledge passed on from forefathers. Of course, managing we can do, but beating the world market, we cannot.”
Priyanath*, who is an online tutor who handsomely earns from his online tutorials, sees the other side of the coin. “All theory is taught at the university, but what about practical knowledge?” Herbet Ranweera’s view was not different from this.
- Dealer licence
Much fraud had allegedly happened for ages due to the manner in which the dealer licence was issued. Dealers Senanayake* and Kapuwatte*, the former descending from a traditional gem family and the latter having just entered the field four years ago, seemed to be happy about the manner the licence is granted now. “Those days, you just had to show the national identity card (NIC) to obtain the license. But now, the NIC, a police report, Grama Niladhari Certificate, letters from two guarantors who are already holding dealer licences, and a bank statement with a current account extending to six months must be produced.”
- Bank loans?
Although the bank statement is mandatory to obtain a dealer licence, an identical comment from all who were spoken to was the difficulty or inability to obtain bank loans. For a field that needs heavy investments in terms of machinery, manpower, and expertise, all stated how one could survive without the assistance from financial institutions. Janitha Gunathilake*, a manager in a leading private bank, highlighted the issue of the high-risk factor. “There are mines that go on for years without a single stone found. In that case, how would they pay the debt?” True enough from the side of the bank, but distressing from the side of the new investor.
Any industry is not easy to break into and the gem industry is one that tops the list. “It is a monopoly. I spent years without a single buyer,” said Shanaka*, who is also an engineer. “I did not give up as I started already being economically strong and had a strong source of income from engineering. But how many can do that?”
- State responsibility
The National Gem and Jewellery Authority and National Gem and Jewellery Research and Training Institute are the respective state bodies. Approaching the latter was extremely difficult. We pursued to learn that the senior officers of the former do not seem to think they do anything wrong. The inadequacy and outdated nature of traditional knowledge was pointed out, saying that more awareness needs to be created. It was interesting to be informed that traditional villages bordering the Colombo District such as Obawatta, Vebada, Eswatta, Eriyagolla, Moragala, and Amithirigala, to date, every family engages in manual shouldering using substances such as mercury (Hg) that have extreme health hazards that even cause cancer. No prohibitive measures for this were provided.
A senior officer of the authority expressed concern over the time length taken to issue a mine license. Again hesitating to express even his personal opinion, he said that the authority has a long way to go, even in the primary tasks such as stone identification and cutting.
Why a monopoly? That’s a good question. There are merchants who buy gems from mines. If you start with one merchant, generally, the lore of the trade is that you continue with him for as long as you or the other engage in the trade. So, what if you go to another merchant? Would you not be offered a good price?
“This is a close-knit field,” said Pavithra*, a military officer who loves the trade. “Everybody knows everybody. When you take the stone to one, the word spreads. The merchants support each other. So if you take the stone to another, it is unlikely that you get a better price. The stone may eventually end up going from hand to hand and getting condemned for the features or for the lack of it, and then lands at a very low price. You can’t afford that to happen.”
- Any answers?
For answers, one needs to ask questions. Why is there not a regulated legal procedure in the gem business? Many school dropouts enter the industry. Lured by the dreams of hitting the jackpot, much unsavoury acts are resorted to. Why not formalise education on gems? It is researched only in the regions of Jaffna and Hambantota where gems are not found. Hence, in addition to giving school students the option of vocational subjects such as home science, agriculture, and electronics, how about introducing gemmology so that even a school dropout would drop out with a vocational knowledge that he or she could use?
Speaking of both “he” and “she”, why not a system be introduced to encourage female participation in the trade? In order to relieve the weight of the monopoly, could the State intervene through the National Gem and Jewellery Authority? Could the National Gem and Jewellery Research and Training Institute incorporate both traditional knowledge of the poor miner as well as the sophisticated knowledge of the foreign-educated university lecturer for their courses? Can anyone step forward to fill up the lacuna of texts in the vernacular?
Could more payment gateways be opened so that the international buyer would have better access to the new merchant? Could one thing at a time be addressed, out of many of the above, so that the radiance of gems would ripple down to those who have set their heart and soul in it?
*Names have been changed to protect the persons’ identities.