Updated: May 8
My inability to find Padparadscha, the sapphire that encapsulates a sunset within, took me away from New Zealand to the island of Sri Lanka in search of the 'King of Sapphires'. It is said that 'true' Padparadscha hails from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). However, beautiful examples of sapphires with the Padparadscha hue are also mined in Madagascar and Tanzania.
The word Padparadscha is Sinhalese for 'lotus flower'. In reference to the vibrant orange and pink hues of the gemstone that mimic those of the lotus flower. Padparadscha ranges from very light orangey-pink to a more intense orange-salmon hue.
My journey to find Padparadscha began in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I hired a car, with my friend volunteering to drive, going against the advice that we should hire a driver due to the sheer chaos of Sri Lankan roads. We had no accommodation booked or itinerary to follow. Our only objective was to find a Padparadscha sapphire and we had a ballpark idea of where we might locate one.
From Colombo, we drove inland to Ratnapura, which translates to 'the city of gems' in Sinhalese. Armed with the knowledge that Ratnapura was surrounded by gemstone mines and that it had a nearby uncut gemstone market that operated from 6:00 am to 9:00 am, this is all we knew about this intriguing Sri Lankan town. Upon arrival, it was pouring with rain, but busy and bustling. Finding decent accommodation proved to be challenging; it was clear that Ratnapura was not a tourist destination; it was a trade destination built around the gemstone industry. We checked in at the Centauria Hill Resort on the outskirts of town for the night and prepared ourselves for the next day's adventure.
Early the next morning we travelled to a nearby town Nivithigala in which the open-air gemstone market was held. We had no address. The only information we had was that it started at 6:00 am and we would see men gathering in the street holding pieces of folded up paper. Driving into the centre of town we quickly spotted the congregating men. We joined the group and local dealers started to show us their gemstone products. At this market, gemstones were mostly in their raw form. Uncut. We asked about Padparadscha or Padparaga as it is referred to in Sri Lanka, and just about every other type of raw stone was produced for us. But no Padparadscha.
(Photo) Here I am on the far left under my umbrella
viewing a sapphire mine in Pelmadulla a town on the
outskirts of Ratnapura in Sri Lanka.
We spent the next few days visiting various gem dealers around the Ratnapura area. Though all had beautiful sapphires for sale, we were yet to find a Padparadscha. Between visiting these dealers we stopped at various roadside mining operations. The workers at these mines were happy to share with us their operations and showed us how the process worked. As no commercial mining is allowed in Sri Lanka all mines are smaller operations out of hand-dug pits in the ground. I will save this fascinating mining process for another blog post.
After 3 days spent in the Ratnapura area with no sign of the elusive Padparadscha, we headed south towards the coast. Our destination was a location called China Fort in a town called Beruwala. This was the home to one of the largest cut stone markets in the world. The market was easy to locate. Hundreds of men gathered in a street that was lined with gemstone brokering shops. Surely in this busy gemstone hub, we could find a Padparadscha sapphire. And so our day began. Sitting in one of the air-conditioned brokering offices as hundreds and hundreds of beautiful sapphires from a multitude of sapphire dealers were laid before us. Finally, a seller came forward who had a whole bag of Padparadscha in smaller carat sizes, with lots of gemstones to choose from. We began the process of narrowing down the lot to the sapphires we wanted, finally settling on a 2.77ct Padparadscha and a 2.06ct Padparadscha. We bartered a price for these then closed the deal. Thinking our day had ended we were invited for coffee at the shop owners nearby home.
(Photo) I took this photo looking down at the Beruwala cut stone market
Word had travelled in the local market that two foreigners were on the hunt for Padparadscha. Sitting in the courtyard of the shop broker's home, sipping on black coffee, a man on a scooter pulled up. After some back and forth in Sinhalese with the other gemstone dealers accompanying us, he produces a folded piece of white paper from his pocket. There enclosed in this small parcel is a huge and spectacular 6.33ct Padparadscha sapphire. We had found it! Negotiations opened and over the next 3 hours, an animated haggle ensued. The man with the Padparadscha was selling on behalf of another seller so there were multiple phone calls from his end relaying proposed prices. At last, we settled on a final price. $2400 New Zealand dollars. At the time this was an expensive buy for us, but we later found out the true cost of Padparadscha on the Western market. We had brought very well.
After 10 days of travelling through Sri Lanka with the sole purpose of sapphire buying, we had discovered that even on the 'Island of Gems' Padparadscha was a rare and exciting find. We travelled home via India and then the United Arab Emirates and here we had the Padparadscha sapphire made into a spectacular ring.
My love for Padparadscha has continued to inspire my search for this rare and coveted gemstone. So far, I have sourced some beautiful Padparadscha options for some of my clients, at a fraction of the price they would pay if bought at retail value. The Sapphire Merchant has a beautiful range of Padparadscha sapphire available for purchase at undoubtedly some of the best prices in New Zealand and Australia.
(Photo) The 6.33ct Padparadscha sapphire we purchased at Beruwala market in Sri Lanka was set into a ring. 18ct white gold with yellow gold pillars. Flanked by 2 half-moon 0.76ct diamonds. Designed by Gemma - The Sapphire Merchant and assembled by Manish Jewellers in the United Arab Emirates.
Update: Since publishing this article. Padparadscha sapphires have become more scarce, with options over 3ct extremely difficult to source. Fortunately, I have well-placed suppliers in Sri Lanka and Thailand who are, at times, getting attractive options into their stock. Prices for Padparadscha sapphire have skyrocketed, making this an attractive long-term investment. Why keep your money earning little interest when you can wear your investment on your finger (or around your neck) and admire it every day!