Updated: May 8
The Sapphire Merchant, an emerging online business run by 38-year-old Gemma Dillon, is changing the traditional method of how the gemstone industry operates within New Zealand. Gemma's background is in the early childhood education sector, and she is the co-owner of 4 childcare centres in the Canterbury region. A long-running passion for gemology took Gemma to Sri Lanka to learn about the gemstone industry. Sri Lanka is famous for its Ceylon blue sapphires, adorning the likes of royalty throughout the ages. At the time, Gemma’s goal was to find an elusive padparadscha sapphire, the rarest colour of sapphire and to use this journey to press into the industry from a grassroots level. Here is her story.
In September 2018 I landed in Colombo the capital of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is 4 times smaller in landmass but 4 times larger in population than New Zealand. It is densely populated and, at times, chaotic. I hired a car and started my journey toward Ratnapura ‘City of Gems’. At the time I was overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Colombo and the extreme congestion on the roads; I questioned whether I had made the right decision to travel to a country so different from New Zealand. However, my culture shock quickly abated as we left the capital behind us and drove inland towards our first destination.
Known as the ‘City of Gems’ Ratnapura is one of the most important hubs of the coloured gemstone industry. It is a starting point. A town built around the local industry, located on some of the most mineral-rich soil in the world. Commercial mining is forbidden in Sri Lanka, so most mines are small operations run by 4-10 men. Ratnapura is host to one of the largest uncut gemstone markets on the planet. At 6 am – 9 am every morning, men gather on the street to buy and sell their treasures. Sapphire is the most synonymous gemstone linked to Sri Lanka however it is also known for its ruby, alexandrite, spinel, tourmaline, zircon, moonstone and aquamarine, to name a few.
I spent two weeks travelling around Sri Lanka by car, visiting mines and gemstone markets, speaking with locals, and learning about the industry and history of the area. One thing that struck me early on was that the trade is run by men only. When entering these mostly outdoor gem markets, I immediately noticed that I was often the only female for as far as the eye could see. I also noticed that men of the Islamic faith dominated these markets. At first, I was a little intimidated by the lack of women doing business in the area, but quickly those initial nerves fell away, and I was pleasantly surprised at how respectful and friendly the many gemstone dealers were. I found this in stark contrast to how freely women can operate and lead in business in New Zealand. My first journey was a success from a learning perspective and on my last day at the Beruwala Market, I found the padparadscha sapphire that had been the seed for me to undertake this journey in the first place.
Upon returning home to New Zealand, my fascination with precious gemstones continued to flourish and I dedicated time to educating myself on how to evaluate, identify, select and care for coloured gemstones. In December 2018 my brother asked me to help him source a blue sapphire to have a bespoke engagement ring designed and made up for his then-girlfriend, soon-to-be fiancé. This task proved more difficult than I had anticipated. After visiting multiple jewellers in Christchurch and emailing the few gemstone dealers in New Zealand, I soon discovered that sourcing a good quality blue sapphire over 4ct in size, even with a generous budget, was near impossible. We viewed only 2 loose blue sapphires in the weeks following, a 1.6ct and 1.8ct in size, both with considerable price tags. The response I received from the online gemstone dealers was that they would not sell directly to the public or in one case I heard nothing back at all. I was quite flabbergasted at how limited the choice was in New Zealand. On outer appearances, the trade appeared to be wrapped up tight, controlled by the baby boomer generation who seemed fixed in their methods. In the end, I sourced a stunning 4ct blue sapphire from a connection I had made during my travels, below budget and my brother over the moon with the result. This lacklustre experience of buying a sapphire in New Zealand highlighted for me a weakness in the New Zealand loose gemstone market and a potential opportunity to supply this gap.
In April 2019 I set off on a carefully planned buying trip to Sri Lanka. During a stopover in Indonesia, news came through that there had been a terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, a series of explosions targeting churches and hotels killing 264 people. I had stayed in one of the targeted hotels during our last trip, so the news was sobering. After deliberating with my family I decided to change the course of my journey and fly into Bangkok, Thailand then travel 3 hours by car to Chanthaburi. Chanthaburi has a rich history of ruby and sapphire mining, another major cut and uncut gemstone trading hub. People come from all around the world; Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Madagascar, Mozambique, Pakistan, India, Burma, Australia and the USA to trade their precious and semi-precious gemstones and buy gemstones to take back to their native countries. It was in Chanthaburi that I spent a riveting 10 days within the local community, meeting, learning from and sharing meals with people who had worked within the trade their whole lives. Some were 4th and 5th generation traders. Time spent within the community allowed me to foster new connections and I was able to build relationships with people who were very experienced in the trade. During my time in Chanthaburi, I carefully selected 29 sapphires to bring home to New Zealand. These sapphires would comprise my base stock and allow me to start my business ‘The Sapphire Merchant’.
I was planning my third buying trip for The Sapphire Merchant when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the planet closing borders and affecting worldwide travel. At first, it seemed like the potential end of my business as the gemstone industry was built around buyers and sellers travelling into major gemstone hubs or too-big international trade shows. With this no longer a possibility, I had to think outside the box. The connections I had made on my previous travels proved to be fortuitous. One of the friends I had connected with in Chanthaburi was now based back in Sri Lanka and he had the Ratnapura and Beruwala gemstone markets on his doorstep. Both being millennials and utilising the power of technology, we could see an opportunity to work in partnership. It has now become my mission to source beautiful gemstones for the New Zealand public at unbeatable prices. I aim to build the largest online store in New Zealand, offering New Zealand buyers more choices in purchasing. When buying a gemstone from The Sapphire Merchant, you have the assurance of knowing that you are contributing to a small business enterprise both here and in Sri Lanka. Many families in the industry rely on continued business throughout this Pandemic.
I had taken my previous gemstone buying trips for granted, assuming that these exotic destinations would always be accessible, a plane flight away. The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the traditional way the gemstone industry operates. The future of the industry relies on those who can transcend the traditional way of buying and selling. Technology is key to this shift. When the borders reopen and travel resumes, I plan to return to Sri Lanka with my family, a country and people that have found their way into my heart.