Hidden amongst the dense streets, in a small enclave, is Chinafort, the jewel of Sri Lanka’s global gemstone industry. Just minutes removed from the oceanside town of Bentota, this walled neighbourhood is where the action happens.
Its residents are predominately Muslim and gemstones are traded daily - with the exception of Fridays when prayer takes precedence over business. Otherwise, it is a constant, bustling marketplace where many of the worlds sapphires make a brief stop before moving on to broader markets.
In addition to the thriving marketplace, gem cutting factories and heat-treating facilities are nearby. Gem brokering takes place anywhere two people can find the space to negotiate; crowded office spaces, on street corners, in alleyways, and even on tiny, plastic tables set up specifically for this purpose.
However, the most established gem-cutters - the ones with the inside track on fine sapphires and direct access to the mines of Ratnapura - are tucked away in gorgeous Sri Lankan style villas or larger residences on the side streets in Chinafort.
Emanating from these villas is prime inventory which flows regularly between Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Europe by way of in-house brokers (usually a family member) hosting a constant rotation of showings to private clients.
Depending on the time of year, inventory levels fluctuate greatly. For example, during monsoon season mining slows dramatically, leading the pace of cutting production to decline substantially.
Outside of the villas, the main gem market of Chinafort is where lower to medium quality gemstones can be purchased; either by the parcel for recutting, or by the single stone as needed. This type of buying takes patience. If you’re hoping to find premium goods, or you’re looking for something really specific, your best to seek out the assistance of a trusted local or broker.
It can be extremely difficult to get a feel for who has the best selection and quality on a particular day. Therefore, searching for specifics gems in a place this hectic is incredibly time consuming and take hours, days, or even weeks.
Outside of town, about 3 hours depending on how fast your local drivers drives, is the town of Ratnapura. This place is a Mecca for rough sapphires, polished gem-trading, and basically anything sapphire related as the mines are all located in nearby mountains, rivers, and tunnels.
A typical day in Ratnapura starts early in the morning at one of the rotating rough gem markets around town. Depending on the time of day, the focus then shifts to various offices and cutting factories. By late afternoon, it’s essential to have an office with direct daylight on one of the busiest gem market avenues for the best opportunity to grade, select, and buy the sapphires passing by.
On the outskirts of Ratnapura, into the hills by way of dirt roads steeped alongside the odd Tea Plantation, are the mines themselves. Typically, it’s easier to see the mine owner in town to buy their gems but, on occasion, it’s worthwhile to visit them in person and see what’s been dug up over the previous few weeks. The mines we toured were river bed mining and shaft mining - almost 100 metres deep - which leave the least environmental footprint of any type of operation.
Buying direct can save money if everything works out accordingly, but the risk often outweighs the reward. Taking the time to properly assess the sapphires in a comfortable and pressure-free environment in these parts isn’t always an option.