Sapphires are found in both igneous and metamorphic rocks. When sapphires are rooted in solid host rock, they are considered “primary deposits.” However, sapphires are frequently found some distance from their original source in “secondary deposits.”
Rocks exposed on the earth’s surface are relentlessly scoured by wind and water. The process of erosion moves rock fragments into streams where they are fractured, releasing any gems they contain. In places where the current naturally slows, the heavy gemstones settle into the river or streambed. With time, sapphires become concentrated and the site becomes a type of secondary deposit called an “alluvial deposit.”
Alluvial gem gravel is the most lucrative source of sapphires because it contains concentrated amounts of gemstones that are relatively easy to extract. The principles of alluvial mining are the same all over the world; only the level of mechanization differs from place to place. Primitive alluvial mining can require nothing more than a pan, sieve, or basket.
Most sapphires come from countries with strict guidelines on how mining may proceed. In Sri Lanka (Ceylon) mining is regulated so the land is protected from over-use. Mining is restricted to small-scale operations where heavy machinery is forbidden.
Natural untreated sapphires are rare and are mined in a manner that ensures a stable market and secures the deposits for future generations. Strip mining such as in some emerald mining operations creates tremendous environmental damage and only benefits a few large companies that have the capital for a large-scale operation. This type of mining also results in a market that will fluctuate heavily when new deposits are found, as the new production will flood the market and prices will drop.
Some sapphire producing countries such as Sri Lanka (Ceylon) do not allow mining activities that damage the environment or create unstable economic conditions. These responsible fair trade laws are regulated well and have existed for years. We purchase the majority of our sapphires directly from Sri Lanka gem dealers and miners.
New Mining Videos
Click here to view our YouTube videos of the sapphire mines from our most recent trip to Sri Lanka.
Sapphire Surface Mining (1 of 3)
Sapphire Surface Mining (2 of 3)
Sapphire Surface Mining (3 of 3)
Ratnapura Backyard Mine
Native Hand Cutting (1 of 2)
Native Hand Cutting (2 of 2)
Heating Yellow Sapphires
Heat Treating Rubies
Beruwala Buying Market (1 of 2)
Beruwala Buying Market (2 of 2)
Beruwala Buying Market – Fair Deals
Beruwala Buying Office
The images below are part of a collection of mining pictures from various sapphire-producing countries. The methods of mining are different depending on the type of sapphire deposit, the climate and local government regulations.
Here is Tuliar, Madagascar the most important source of pink sapphires in the world today. In these little wooden shacks pass all the fine pink sapphires from Madagascar.
The trenches are hand dug all over southwestern Madagascar. In every direction these excavated pits are seen. From these mines come all types of sapphires in all colors, but mostly pink sapphires.
The sandy desert landscape is turned upside-down by the seekers of fortune found in the world-class deposits within the earth.
Entire villages have exploded in the search for sapphires in southern Madagascar; here is a classic picture of these people in search of opportunity and a new life.
The gem bearing earth is pushed into 50th sacks that are then carried on the backs of young men to the nearest stream for sifting. In some cases this could be miles.
At the river’s edge the soil is sifted carefully by hand. The smallest crystals are found quickly by the trained eye. Faith and hope of “the big one” is always in the minds of these treasure hunters.
Sifting is the easy part of the mining work. This is the “fruit” of the hard labor.
If there is a drought then the water is not available to find the sapphires from the mines. At the time of this picture excellent water levels were available, so production was good.
When foreigners show up at the river’s side all the stones come out of the miners mouths. This is where they are kept most safe and readily available when buyers are present.
Something is found and a day’s work is complete.
Sri Lanka has a different climate and a different system of mining than Madagascar. Here a make shift mining shaft is actually a well-built and managed operation.
Land owners (or permit owners) and miners work together so that they can be equally compensated when valuable material is found. A cooperative and fair effort is made for all parties to have equal reward and risk.
Mining inspections and regulations exist for relatively safe mining activity. Sri Lanka has been mining sapphires for thousands of years with little change in mining operations and mine construction.
Down in the mine shaft the tunnels are lit by candle light. Water is everywhere and pumps must be used if water levels rise too quickly. During the rainy seasons there is little or no mining.
Mud is part of this job, so is risk. Wooden supports must be placed close together to ensure that the mine walls do not collapse.
Water sometimes pours out of the mine shaft walls like a fire hose. These are not safe conditions. Only down at the water level can the gem bearing gravel be found.
A day’s production at this mine in Sri Lanka. Here are mostly garnets and quartz, nothing of significant value.
Rice patties and river streams are perfect locations for sifting and sorting new gravel bearing earth.
An experienced washer knows how to sift and sort quickly.
Some days are better than others. Hope is always fresh on the minds of these miners.
Inspection of the material found is the greatest part of this type of work. Normally many types of gem species are mixed in with this gem bearing gravel.
Fine inspection for small stones is the “bread and butter” of this trade. Nothing is left untouched and inspected. A fine ½ sapphire is worth a 2 weeks pay.
This time only an included pink sapphire is found. Something that keeps hope and faith alive that the next day might be more profitable.
Here is the weekly production of commercial blue sapphire. This material can be used for high temperature heating to turn a uniform color so that it can be saleable for mass quantity jewelry.