SRI LANKAN GEMMOLOGIST SHINES IN UK

by Tilak S. Fernando

Sri Lanka depicts a tiny dot in the map of world. Three major exporting commodities, Rubber, Tea & Coconut once placed this tiny speck in the world market to earn its foreign exchange and became known among overseas traders and importers. Of late, English gentleman's game of cricket placed Sri Lanka on the plinth of popularity. On- going terrorist war has made its name filter through mass media to every nook and corner of the world. Susanthika Jayasinghe, with a Bronze Olympic medal, recently made the name Sri Lanka reverberate on international bill boards and television screens. Still, how many are knowledgeable about the great treasures buried under this amazing island's own chattels? Although many have talked about Sri Lankan precious stones on British Crown Jewels, and even of Princess Diana's famous Blue Sapphire coming from Sri Lanka, yet none has made any attempt to explain or educate the world at large about the prevalent gemming industry in Sri Lanka or about the craftsmen's skills, who cut and polished such regal jewels which radiate majestically.

Although Sri Lanka has been focussing its cultural heritage in the past, mainly concentrating on tea and fast expanding tourism, nothing spectacular has been done to promote Sri Lankan gems or gem industry in London, which should have seen as an extension of tourism.

In this context it would be appropriate to fit-in a Sri Lankan gemmologist in London, D. H. Ariyarante FGA, DGA, FGS, into Thomas Grey's famous words: ' Full many a gem of purest ray serene, the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear, full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air'. Ariyaratna, an old body of Maha Bodhi College Colombo, with thirty years of experience in dealing with all aspects of gems, has authored two books on gemmology and mineralogy, namely Resplendent Isle of Gems and 'Gems of Sri Lanka', in three languages, (Sinhala, English and French), English version into five editions, Sinhala version into three editions and the French version into two editions, since their first publication in 1976. Sinhala and English versions of mineralogy of Sri Lanka in have been approved by the Education Publication Advisory Board as a library book in Sri Lanka.

Although he literally 'blushed unseen' in London for over two decades, yet due to his enthusiasm and unbeatable attitude Ariyaratne was able to put the words of Marco Polo and many other travellers' printed description on glittering and dazzling Sri Lankan gems and jewels into to reality with the aid of an exhibition for the first time in 1996 at the Commonwealth Institute in London. The main objective of the exhibition was to demonstrate all aspects of the Sri Lankan gem industry, which is over two thousand five hundred years old, going back to its origins in its birth place' Ratnapure ( Ratna means gems and Pura means city). It was a two-day exhibition mainly to increase awareness of the gem industry of Sri Lanka thereby improving the trade between Sri Lanka and Britain.

In 1997 D.H. Ariyaratne, held his second exhibition of Gems and Jewellery close to the Mecca of Gem and Jewellery Industry in London, Hatton Garden, incorporating many sections of the industry such as geology, gem mining, cutting, polishing, and integrating an educational unit consisting of books, video films and colour slides relating to the Sri Lankan gem industry.

Touched by the immense response and the feed back he received from the public in Europe on the increased awareness of Sri Lanka's 2500 year old gem industry through his past two years exhibitions, Ariyaratne's presentation in 1998 was extended up to three days in London. To achieve his goal a number of organisations rendered their generous support which by then included National Gem and Jewellery Authority, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka High Commission and many others. A special feature of this exhibition was the donation he made to Princess Diana Memorial Fund. This was achieved by giving a gemstone (with prior approval from the Fund Authorities) to every visitor to the exhibition who donated 2 and over towards Diana Memorial Fund. In addition, each visitor received a free gemstone at the entrance - out of a choice of Sapphire, Topaz, or Moonstones.

During his fourth successive year exposition in London D. H. Ariyaratne placed over 25,000 Sri Lankan gems on display whereby one could identify gemstones easily by differentiating precious from semi-precious categories, studying their colour, quality, clarity, size, weight, the price per carat etc., which this gemmologist called it a self-training process for the public. A novelty attraction to the British eye at the exhibition was the gem cutting demonstration by Vince Benjamin, who had been trained as a lapicide in Sri Lanka through the sponsorship of Mr. Ariyaratne.

Making a steady progress over the past four years, D.H.Ariyaratne successfully completed his fifth demonstration in London in December 2000, by increasing the number of days from two to three and displaying over 30,000 gemstones in both cut and rough forms. Today his exhibitions have become an annual popular event, which is evident from the number of advertisers, in his glossy souvenir, which is given free of charge to every visitor, with free samples of gemstones and jewellery.

Ariyaratne, who is a devout Buddhist likes to compare Life and gemstones in a philosophical manner according to his Buddhist ideology. Identifying human life as matter and mind he says to achieve mindfulness (purified mind) is through meditation and following the Buddha's eighth noble path. Using this simile, he states that obtaining maximum beauty of a gem stone is dependent on the way it is cut and polished until no inclusions are shown and maximum colour, high dispersion, greater degree of lustre etc are uncovered. Testing of gemstones to identify its variety is, therefore, an important part of gemmology says this gemmologist, just as same as human life, which is full of trial and error.

From a critical view point on the theory of 'supply and demand', D. H.Ariyaratne states that 'Sri Lanakn gems do not adequately meet the supply in the British gem market', which means that the gem export from Sri Lanka to Britain is either insufficient or irregular. Some gemstones originally introduced to the world of gems have been first discovered in Sri Lanka and among them Sinhalite and Ekanite were popular among gemmologists, gemstone collectors and mineralogists throughout the world. It was believed that in 1996, around half a million people were engaged in the Sri Lankan gem industry. Considering such statistics, this reflects as a fair segment of a population around 18 million people where the gem industry has become one of the most important industries and a principal foreign exchange earner today.

'There is a crying need for publicity for Sri Lankan gems and gem industry in Britain, emphasises D. H. Ariyaratne. He believes that staging regular gem exhibitions in Sri Lanka, taking a parallel view that of exhibitions held at Earl's Court and Birmingham would be the best method to publicise the Sri Lankan gems and gem industry in the UK. He believes that workshops focusing attention on the practical modalities of the gem trade as another area that the authorities in Sri Lanka could offer and a government sponsored gem sales centre at Hatton Garden, which is the icon for gems and jewellery in England, is very much behind schedule, as this could be an ideal opportunity to promote Anglo-Sri Lankan gem trade.

Sri Lanka's occupational structure in the gem industry in the past had been to pass down particular skills from father to son whereas the scientifically based knowledge in both theory and practical work in testing and identifying gems have been lacking. He, therefore, suggests academic qualifications at international level to be introduced to improve gemmology in Sri Lanka. One way of achieving this is to increase the existing offers of the concession to Sri Lankan students in relevant courses run by the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, which Ariyaratne says would no doubt attract more and more people into the orbit of the gem trade whereby further development could be achieved on the Anglo-Sri Lankan gem trade. D. H. Ariyaratne holds a Diploma in Gem Diamonds from the Gemmology Association in England and is a Fellow of the Gemmological Association and the Geological Society in London.