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Improving gem and jewellery industry: Challenges to overcome, opportunities to seize

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An exclusive interview with SLGJA Chairman A.H.M. Imtizam

The history of Sri Lanka’s gem and jewellery industry goes back thousands of years. Over the centuries the country has gained for itself a standing as one of the most popular sources of gemstones and jewellery of the best quality. With the approach of the premier annual event of the industry – the FACETS International Gem &Jewellery Exhibition – in September, organised by the Sri Lanka Gem &Jewellery Association, the entire industry is abuzz with anticipation and excitement. 

We met up with Sri Lanka Gem and Jewellery Association Chairman A.H.M. Imtizam to discuss his views on the history and current status of the industry. Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: Describe the journey of the Sri Lankan gem and jewellery industry following its inception.

A: The gem industry has a long tradition going back to our ancient kings. It has provided a livelihood for thousands of people and is replete with stories of rags to riches. The industry continues to function under a system of profit sharing between the owner of the pit and the workers, which has been described as one of the best cooperative systems in the world. Today the industry is on par with that of any country. 

Q: What is the current situation of the gem and jewellery industry in Sri Lanka?

A:Sri Lanka is and has always been the source of most of the existing varieties of gem stones. The industry boasts a proud history of more than 2000 years and over the years we’ve shared our knowledge with many other countries including Madagascar and Tanzania. Today we are capable of processing and adding value to material imported to Sri Lanka from foreign countries.

The gem andjewellery industry currently utilises a semi-automated process when it comes to production and manufacturing. Combining local and international knowledge with technology, the industry has fashioned a system that is all our own. We now also provide gem stones and jewellery designs for the watch industry. This calls for work of extreme precision and machinery of the highest standards. 

Q: What are the major challenges the industry has faced and is currently facing?

A: During the 20th century, the industry suffered a crippling blow when Government regulations banned the import of gold and restricted the trade of gem and jewellery between Sri Lanka and foreign countries. 

The biggest challenge faced by jewellery manufacturers today is the diminishing number of goldsmiths. The lack of awareness in the jewellery villages when it comes to modern technology and machinery is also a significant obstacle in the industry.

Q: What defining opportunities has the industry met with over the years? 

A: The Colonial period saw the further expansion of gem and jewellery commerce. 

Prior to the introduction of the Government’s ban on gold importation, the industry had been cottage-based with the practice of gem and jewellery production being passed down from generation to generation. The lifting of the ban paved the way for the birth of a new, sophisticated and more organised form of manufacturing. This allowed the Sri Lankan gem andjewellery industry to match the pace of the global community and keep up with international practices and trade.

Q: Describe the contribution of the gem and jewellery industry towards the development of Sri Lanka’s socio-economic situation?

A: The vast amounts of net foreign exchange the industry earned and its impact on the economy has been significant, not just to those directly connected to the industry, but to all Sri Lankans. The money earned by the average gem dealers now goes into the education of family members and it is heartening to see the children of gem dealers now engaging in other fields bringing about a so called social revolution in the centres of the gem trade such as Ratnapura, Beruwala, Galle, etc.

Q: What has and will always set the Sri Lankan gem and jewellery industry apart from those of other nations?

A:Sri Lanka boasts a true mine-to-market industry, both domestically and for export in a fascinating blend of tradition, experience and modernisation. Mining is primarily done by use of traditional methods, and is small-scale by choice and design as such mines are considered to be less harmful to the environment and a more stable source of employment for more people. 

Lapidary is another area in the trade where the traditional meets the modern in Sri Lanka. Centuries of experience in cutting and polishing continue alongside new technology and design models. The time-honoured art of reading rough and orienting stones is integrated with the growing demand of the global market for exact calibration, well-balanced proportions and high quality polish. Thus the Sri Lankan lapidary industry consists of a fascinating blend of high-powered techniques, utilising some of the world’s greatest expertise in the orientation of rough, and a growing precision cutting and re-cutting sector that maintains the strictest of tolerances. 

Q: In your opinion how has the FACETS International Gem &Jewellery Exhibition contributed to the development of the industry in Sri Lanka? 

A: FACETS has provided small time gem and jewellery merchants with the ideal platform to gain recognition among foreign markets, a veritable window to the world. We see many former small timers now doing well as a result and we are extremely happy about this. The NGJA and EDB have played a significant role in constantly recognising this need. Also foreign buyers on the lookout for that special Ceylon Sapphire now know exactly where to look. 

Q: What do you foresee for the future of the Sri Lankan gem and jewellery industry?

A: If correctly handled and nurtured without bureaucratic bungling, which unfortunately has been the order of the day, the industry has immense potential in terms of employment and economic benefits.The trade is ever willing to engage with the NGJA to formulate policies in this regard for the betterment of the industry and the country.



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