Colored Stones: Sri Lanka—the New Hot Spot for Sapphires?



On a Stone Shopping Spree in Sri Lanka

Buyers may not have realized it, but sapphire sales to the United States from one of the world’s oldest sources, Sri Lanka, are quietly booming.

The United States is still the largest consumer market for Sri Lankan gemstones, buying nearly a quarter of all stones exported. According to Sri Lanka’s National Gem & Jewellery Authority, exports to the United States were valued at $7.62 million in the first quarter of 2012—a 102 percent growth from the prior year.

One of the pits at the new primary sapphire mine near Kataragama

Blue sapphires accounted for more than 75 percent of those stones: 11,642 carats to the tune of $5.77 million. That’s up from 9,825 carats worth $2.81 million—18 percent and 105 percent bumps from 2011’s first quarter. (Not surprisingly, the average blue sapphire per-carat price also jumped from $286 to $495.)

Sri Lanka dealers agree that larger and higher-quality stones are their strongest sellers. “The main U.S. business is bigger, better, and special stones, both heated and unheated—15-, 20-, even 30-carat sizes move,” says Ajward Deen of A.M.S. Deen & Sons in Colombo. “And prices are strong: $20,000 and more a carat for a large special stone is not unheard of.”

Two pieces of Sri Lankan sapphire rough

American buyers are still very ­interested in all qualities of the country’s blue sapphires—pastels, cornflower, strong blues—confirms Edward Boehm, president and CEO of RareSource in Chattanooga, Tenn., who recently made a buying visit to Sri Lanka. To say nothing of the gemstone’s other hues. “There is strong demand for unheated high-end pink and purple sapphires,” he notes. Good pinks start at $2,000 a carat; for purples, expect prices from $750. And yellow sapphires are now good value, adds Boehm, particularly since price increases—which had been fueled by a huge demand from India—have subsided.

But Sri Lanka isn’t only about sapphires—58 varieties of gemstones were exported to the United States in 2012’s first quarter alone. Many overseas buyers are discovering more and more stones from sources such as Tanzania, Madagascar, and Mozambique. The most prominent examples, according to Boehm: sapphire, alexandrite, apatite, danburite, garnet, sillimanite, tourmaline, and zircon.

One of dealer Ajward Deen’s stones: a 21.60 ct. Ceylon blue sapphire

There are high-quality rubies as well, some in 10- to 15-ct. sizes from the new mine in Madagascar. And in addition to the array of Sri Lankan spinel in a range of pastel shades with good clarity, there is a greater selection of spinel from Tanzania, Madagascar, and Vietnam. Another good buy in Sri Lanka is ­garnets: “Red hessonites are great for center stone jewelry when a large affordable gem is required,” says Boehm.

One reason for the increase in availability: Dealers in the southwest coastal town of Beruwela are traveling more frequently to Africa to source material. Buyers, meanwhile, enjoy visiting Beruwela because of its proximity to the West Coast’s well-known beach resorts.

For more colorful gemstone talk