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Interview with a Gem Cutter

Meet Sampath from Nivitihigala, Sri Lanka

The below interview is provided by our partners at GemGroup Sweden. 

1. At what age did you start cutting gems?

I learned to cut gems in 2006, through a skilled individual who taught me and a few others.

2. Why did you start cutting gems?

I have had a passion for gemstones since my small age, and greatly loved to cut gems and wanted to learn the art.

3. Was your family in the gem business too? In what way?

My father was a small-scale gem dealer in Nivithigala, he visited gem mines to buy rough and sold in the gem markets. I had a few other relatives who were involved in gem mining and the trade. I remember my father telling me that the Nivithigala market had very few people in the 1970 and 80s just 10 to 30 people altogether.

4. Do you remember the first gem that you cut?

Yes, it was a round garnet that I sourced here in Nivithigala.

5. What was the first machine that you ever used?

I was gifted a used machine to use (a very old one) by one of the business owners in our town, it was a single hand piece faceting machine (unknown manufacturer). I used this machine to cut until last month and it was heavily over aged.

6. What are the differences compared the new machine you received in June?

The new machine from Sterling Lapidaries works perfect with much less vibration, I believe I could do my best with it.

7. I remember that our exporter from Colombo once helped fix some issues on the old machine. Can you tell us about it?

He did help in many occasions, once when the motor malfunctioned, he helped me get it repaired soon. In addition, once when the earthing system of our home had an issue and the machine started giving electric shocks all over when it was wet. He helped me to get the home earthing system get fixed with all needed equipment’s.

8. I remember back when you were cutting regular shapes only, primarily ovals, in the fall 2020 and earlier. Do you miss doing it?

I had never cut fancy shapes before, and this was a whole new thing to me. I do not cut much traditional shapes now since the demand for our cutting order is high and we engage full time into cutting fancy shapes, and I really enjoy the fancy shapes.

9. I was quite shocked at the results when you started cutting the geometrical shapes. When you previously cut traditional shapes, to be honest I considered the results to look fairly “average”. Almost immediately when you started to cut geometric shapes, the results were spectacular. The symmetry, facet meet points, and creativity in each stone are fantastic considering the condition and vibrations of the old machine you have been using. How do you explain this sudden improvement of the stones? Do you spend more time with each stone now?

Do you feel that you are getting better use of all your skills now such as creativity? Actually, I can’t believe it too, but it all came good from the first fancy shape, however, we improved many areas with the valuable feedback given by you Mr Johannes. I got valuable advice on the type of shapes we should focus on while following the shape on the rough.

After all these stages of learning and cutting, I think that I’m doing my best to provide the most suitable cut now. Hoping to learn more with fancy cuts and to improve further.

10. There is a large element of creativity in cutting these geometric shapes. Every new stone basically means coming up with a whole new design. How many minutes does it take for you to come up with the design & facet pattern for each stone? Do you sketch the shape or facet pattern before you start cutting?

I rarely sketch on a paper or anything, this is because the exact shape cannot be decided earlier due to inclusions and the odd shape of roughs (but I do have an idea of the general shape that I would want to cut). The shape will be finally decided after the complete perfect preforming process of the stone by removing all inclusions. The rest of the design and pattern will be done in my mind, I remember which angle I used on the opposite side of the stone.

11. Do you make any notes on a paper to keep track of the settings/indexes/angles for each stone that you cut?

I haven’t made any recent notes, the fancy cuts have been very familiar now with cutting 5-10 stones per day. the only thing I do is that I follow the natural shape of the rough. Like I said before I usually have the design in my mind and remember what settings I used on the handpiece on each facet of the stone.

12. I understand that you are currently teaching an apprentice. Have you taught cutting previously?

I haven’t taught cutting before, but he already has the basic cutting knowledge. I had to teach him the shapes and the faceting styles we do to make use of the rough efficiently and beautifully.

13. What do you think about your pupil? (I promise, we won’t tell him! )

Haha, he has a good speed in cutting, but he has to learn more about symmetry and to be creative about the most suitable shape to facet. I’m sure he will get into the right track in a few days. He is excited to cut the fancy shapes.

14. How did you first meet our exporter?

He met me on a visit to Nivithigla, where I was looking to sell some of my cut stones. He bought all stones (some sapphires and spinels) and also paid me some extra. After that, he bought traditional cuts continuously.

15. How did you get to know so many miners?

I live in Nivithigala, which is known as a major mining area for small mines in the Rathnapura District. I know many miners since we met every morning in the rough gem market for many years, also I did cut some stones for many of them previously so they could sell in the market at better prices. Also, as a kid, I used to visit mines from the very young age, so I have a good relationship with the mining communities and the villagers.

16. Do you meet most suppliers/miners regularly, or is it more of a big market/fair-type community, where there exist too many miners to count & you meet some of them one day and then may never meet them again?

Since Im visiting the mines and market from quite a long period of time, I have made many connections by buying, helping to sell, and even by helping to cut their stones. Many come to my home when they have good rough so I not only meet them at the town market. Most of the small miners around Nivithigala are from close by villages so I usually know them over the time.

17. I understand that many of the sapphires comes from individual miners, who have acquired them as a part of the profit/production sharing within their mining group or as payment for their work. Why do you like collaborating with the individual miners or small mine owners, rather than with the large mine owners who can offer larger quantities and a wider selection from several mines?

There are many practical social, economic reasons/constraints that many foreign buyers would not believe at once, but these are some realistic reasons that most buyers are unaware of.

Social Reasons: The gem industry in Sri Lanka is very traditional, passed on from many generations from the ancient times. Over years, there have evolved well established large miners, medium miners, small miners, and the individual mine workers. So, most of the time we don’t have access to large mine owners/dealer’s stones since they are not mostly sold to medium scale buyers like us, instead they will be processed/ heated or exported in bulk (in most of the cases) or stocked for future.

I have faced times that I wasn’t invited inside the home of large miners due to fact that we were not up to their business caste/level, therefore there are constraints in working with large/very rich miners or sellers, even though the world thinks everything happens ethically and fairly by larger miners or dealers. This is also due to a social perspective and status within the mining communities in a form of a high or low caste/status (not everybody, but majority).

Help to our community: I believe, during these hard times of covid it would be hard to all, especially small-scale miners to make some living. The small gem market in Nivithigala center, and some longtime rough buyers including us, are definitely helping them uplift their living in these times.

However, in looking at the opposite of the coin, larger miners or sellers have no much impact on their income from covid, since they could hold/stock their rough for a longer period. So, since majority of our smaller rough originates from the smaller mines, I feel we are helping a bit.

Quality: In my experience, we were able to source quality rough through small scale miners at a fair price. This is due to the fact that their parcels are small and we can explain our quality, thus they are much flexible. But, with larger to medium miners, they sometimes expect us to avoid selections and to buy large mine runs at a much higher price. The large mine runs don’t have the best quality always and much of the rough is wasted.

Traceability: In addition, large miners or rough dealers have stocked up rough mixed into large lots, so sometimes we never know if they are traceable and most importantly, some large miners don’t seem to care about traceability in the traditional business way of how things were done before. With the smaller miners, we know what came from where.

I personally have had occasions where large dealers have asked us “why do you need locations of the stones, and it doesn’t matter if its all Sri Lankan”. This shows that this culture is not developed yet.

So I believe, our small miners we work with are being used to traceability in sourcing, so one day, when they become larger dealers or miners, they can produce sapphires while following the ethical souring and traceability standards which we taught them to follow.

18. In what way is Nivithigala related to the sapphire mining and trade?

Even though the City Rathnapura was world famous for gem mining and sapphire trade, suburb areas like Nivithigala, Rakwana and Pelmadulla were known to have mined fine sapphires from the ancient days and bought to Rathnapura to the gem market. There are also ancient roots dating back with beautiful historic stories behind the mining traditions in Nivithigala.

Today, Nivithigala is also known for its rough market, where many buyers and miners gather early mornings at the Nivitihgala bus station. I don’t visit here as often anymore, since miners I know often come to my home these days. Since I’m into fulltime cutting, its better when they bring us rough, it saves our time of not needing to meet them in the market. But, it has become nostalgic feeling, sometimes I take a walk to the gem market in some mornings.

19. How did you make a living before we started working with you in 2020? What type of buyers did you have?

I did cut gems before 2020 for some medium scale suppliers or individuals that I know. And there were a few individuals who came to buy from me during the weekends.

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