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Dispatches from a Sapphire Hunt in Sri Lanka: A Q&A with our Founder, Arabel Lebrusan

6 min read

Dispatches from a Sapphire Hunt in Sri Lanka: A Q&A with our Founder, Arabel Lebrusan

Back in August 2019, our Founder and Designer Arabel Lebrusan embarked on the research trip of a lifetime. Having already explored Fairmined Ecological Gold in Colombia in 2016, Arabel knew that this time round was an opportunity to immerse herself in a different kind of world; one a little more sparkly.

Sri Lanka has a long and colourful gemstone history. Once known affectionately in Sanksrit as Ratna-Dweepa (‘Island of Jewels’), the lush South Asian island boasts a natural wealth of beautiful precious gemstones, from sapphires to rubies, topazes and amethysts.

We caught up with Arabel to get the scoop on this once-in-a-blue-moon journey.

Q: When did you decide to go to Sri Lanka?

A: For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamt of visiting Sri Lanka. I’m a jewellery designer – what could be more exciting than the Island of Jewels?!

As an ethical jeweller, I believe it’s vital to travel to the origin of my materials; to get on the ground, visit all parts of my supply chain, ask questions, learn about how risks are being managed and witness first-hand the benefits arising from our support. We source a lot of our beautiful sapphires and rubies from Sri Lanka, so in the last couple of years I’ve thought lots about exploring the island not just because it’s long been a personal dream, but from a serious business perspective.


Q: What inspired you to go?

A: The promise of magnificent coloured gemstones of the highest calibre (obviously), but also the beautiful landscapes and the island’s small-scale mining industry, and how all of those elements harmonise with one another. Sri Lanka’s gemstone-mining industry is centuries old and bound with tradition, but is also supported by some forward-thinking governmental regulations that place human rights and environmental protection at the forefront.

I thought Sri Lanka could offer me and my family the best of both worlds; a trip that would facilitate both work and pleasure. I wanted my 7 year-old to experience things he’d never learn at school.


Q: How did you prepare for it?

A: I spent a LOT of time researching where mining takes place and learning which gemstones come from which areas. Careful to maintain that all-important work-play balance, I also really enjoyed researching areas of natural beauty and cultural hubs for us to explore as a family. I calculated roughly how long we’d need to spend in each place and the amount of time it would take us to travel from A to B, until eventually I’d filled a month with exciting and varied activities! The internet was my best friend.


Q: What were your first impressions of Sri Lanka when you arrived?

A: “What a different world!” There’s no doubt about it – leaving Bandaranaike International Airport and immersing ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Colombo was a culture shock – but a welcome one. It was such a relief to lose ourselves in a non-western realm of crazy traffic, stunning nature and a free-flow attitude towards life.


Q: Have you ever visited a gemstone mine before? What were your first impressions of the mine – was it what you expected?

A: I’d visited a gold mine, but never a gemstone one. Naturally, my first impression was: “This place is filthy and these people are working incredibly hard” – but that’s mining for you! We should be so appreciative of the hard graft behind our treasured metals and stones.

It was incredibly exciting; imagine grabbing a fistful of mud and rocks from the ground and immediately spotting sparkly gems in the mix! The earth is jam-packed with quartz, garnets and other gorgeous, twinkly crystals.



Q: How big was the mine and how did it feel to be there?

A: It was an open-pit mine, about the size of a football pitch, and completely mud-logged. I was told to bring slippers and shorts along with me and when we arrived, I instantly understood. We walked 100m through muddy terrain, barefoot and knee-deep in mud. It felt pretty liberating, but then we remembered that this is just a 9-5 for the people who work there!


Q: How does the gemstone mining take place? Describe the process as you saw it.

A: In the open-pit mine that I visited, the earth is ploughed with a digger and the sloppy mud is then sieved, with the help of water, through big colanders. Precious gemstones with high density, like sapphires, are held at the bottom of the sieve and collected by the miners at the end.

Q: What does a sapphire look like when it comes out of the Earth?

A: Naturally, it depends on stone colour! Generally speaking, though, the word I think best describes a rough sapphire is simply ‘rough’; matte and not particularly spectacular. Anyone who lays eyes on a rough sapphire for the first time ever would struggle to get their head around the notion that a piece of matter seemingly so insignificant would have the potential to become something so spectacular after being faceted!


Q: We understand that once the rough stones are mined from the Earth, they’re sent to a lapidary. What’s the process of cutting a gemstone?

A: In my mind, this is the stage when real value is added; it’s the lapidary who uncovers the true beauty of a gem.

A gem is cut into a brilliant, faceted jewel using tiny grits of substance that score higher on the Mohs Scale of Hardness. Silicon carbide, a man-made compound of silicon and carbon with a Mohs hardness score of 9.5, is widely used for cutting softer gemstones like sapphires and rubies. Whilst in Sri Lanka I was lucky enough to meet Sanjeewa, a master lapidary, who showed me the tricks of his trade. He demonstrated how he cuts stones using the lapping technique, using a flat, rotating disc to create flat surfaces on a stone. Hats off to him – it’s a lot harder than it looks! I was lucky enough to have a go at cutting my very first sapphire all on my own. It took hours of sweat, but it was worth it!


Q: What’s the significance of Sanjeewa in relation to Lebrusan Studio and Nineeten48?

A: It’s Sanjeewa’s skilful touch and the years of experience behind him that are responsible for the allure of these gemstones – their natural properties are only half of the story. He is the expert artisan that has transformed a rough, organic material into a genius little work of art that catches the light and attracts attention.

Nineteen48 – our ethical gemstone supplier - is the company for whom Sanjeewa works. They ensure that he and others like him can rely on a constant income and great working conditions. Meeting Sanjeewa and seeing with my own eyes the benefits of his employment with Nineteen48 only served to re-clarify why I chose to begin working with, and will continue to work with, Nineteen48.

Q: What (if anything) changed in your head after seeing how gemstones are mined and cut first hand?

A: I have so much respect for all the skilled, hard-working individuals involved in this supply chain – that hasn’t changed, and it won’t ever change. However, this experience taught me that gemstone-cutting really is a serious art - that takes sooooooo long to master. It’s really not an easy job – it’s tense, long-winded and fiddly, and it requires highly trained individuals with a genius eye for proportion and shape. Not everybody in the world is cut out for it! (If you'll pardon the pun...)


Q: What did you take away with you? What about your trip has stuck in your mind the most?

A: The healthy, unravaged landscape; the humble simplicity of life; the hardworking, passionate people; the flavoursome food, made with real love; the mind-blowingly beautiful gemstones; and of course, the elephants!


Q: What was the worst part and the best part?

A: Unfortunately, the worst part about my trip was the disappointment I felt when I wasn’t able to visit an underground mine – I’d been looking forward to it for ages! It rained a lot whilst we were in Sri Lanka, so all underground mines were flooded, making it impossible for me to see them at work. For me, this did feel like a missed opportunity. 

My favourite part was being able to immerse myself in a culture where beautiful jewellery is so highly valued. Sri Lanka has a rich cultural heritage of gemstone mining and cutting, and what I saw in the people there was passion and knowledge. Today, Sri Lanka boasts admirable sustainable policies for small-scale mining, exemplifying that it is possible to carve a place for traditional practise in the modern context, when global warming has reached crisis point. This really inspired me.

As a jeweller I loved being able to see exactly where my gemstones come from and meet the people involved in the process of bringing my beautiful jewels into fruition. These experiences only strengthened my relationship with my pieces and the journeys they’ve made, enabling me to feel more emotionally invested in these creations than ever before. To the benefit of my ethically-minded clients, these experiences have also allowed me to introduce a whole new dimension to my storytelling; one that’s honest, and from a first-hand perspective.

If you have enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about ethical jewellery, make sure you sign up below to receive our newsletter and tell a friend about our services. Don’t forget to give us a call or drop us an email if you need further advice.
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Love, Arabel & Team
Ruby McGonigle
Ruby McGonigle

Ruby McGonigle is a copywriter and digital marketing professional with over five years of jewellery industry experience. After graduating with a BA in Linguistics, she combined her passions for written word and all things sparkly by joining the Lebrusan Studio team as in-house wordsmith and content creator. Among bi-monthly blog posts, notable examples of Ruby's work include a think-piece on the ‘natural diamonds vs. lab-grown diamonds’ debate, a probe into why traceable and third party certified ASM gold is so important, and an investigation of why platinum is no longer more expensive than gold.