It was Mr Wijeratne from the Water Board who brought the missing tiara to mind when he called on us this morning, his beaming presence foretelling progress in our fixed line water connection.
He is a generous, positive fellow, little given to jewellery – except for this fingers. These more than make up for any deficit. They carry a rich selection of rings, the most impressive the size of a small calculator, its flat square surface a golden field on which are displayed, in neat rows, nine precious and semi-precious stones.
As he waved his arms about, explaining what pipe would go where and how our deep well water provision would now be enriched by his fixed line water, the sun glinted on his fingers, and the trickle of gloom that I had started to feel at my total lack of commitment to personal jewellery, become a flood.
Some people are born with voices that will carry them deep into the world of opera, or a figure on which rags or rich silk outfits can be placed with equal grace. Others are born with no instinct for jewels.
I have just-sufficient levels of self-awareness to know that toe or finger rings, and necklaces do little for my truculent beauty. But I also know, albeit from school, that tiaras can improve me.
Whether it was a tiara or a small gold crown much garnished with glass rubies, I cannot now remember. But it did the trick.
My blonde hair appeared more golden, my complexion a more prosperous pink, my head longer - as if the brain beneath my temples had been given an atypical opportunity to just smile, and be blessed - to take time off from thinking. Sadly the tiara disappeared once the play we were performing came to an end.
I sensed later that earrings would have also done well on me; sapphire or gold nuggets, giving my overlooked lobes something special to hug.
This emotional deficit does not stop me appreciating jewellery on others, through here in the jungle, Mr Wijeratne excepted, it is a rare sight. But when it does appear, it makes the sort of glorious waves that Moses must have done as he trekked down from the mountain waving his tablets.
Not long ago five ladies from St Petersburg came to stay. They dressed in a rich selection of gemstones for dinner, including two hair ornaments that may or may not have been tiaras. Often, pearls, rings, and earrings catch the gentle candlelight over dinner, but rarely do they offer the sort of overwhelming light force that you might encounter at a coronation, in Hi! Magazine, the Tatler Diary, or on meeting Luke Skywalker’s Cloud City lightsaber.
Which is a shame, especially here, for Sri Lanka is practically the home of gemstones. If biblical rumours of King Solomon’s wooing of the Queen of Sheba with gifts of priceless Sri Lankan gems, are to be believed, the country’s gem mines can be back dated to 900 BCE. "The king of Ceylon,” wrote Marco Polo in the 13th century, has “the grandest ruby that was ever seen, a span in length, the thickness of a man's arm; brilliant beyond description, and without a single flaw. Its worth cannot be estimated in money”.
Thanks to the extreme old age of its rocks, Sri Lanka’s gems are so numerous as to just wash out onto flood plains, and into rivers and streams. Twenty five percent of its land is gem-bearing, especially around Ratnapura and Elahera. From here come the 75 semi or precious gems that call this island home: rubies, sapphires, spinels, amethysts, sapphires, garnets, rose quartz, aquamarines, tourmalines, agates, cymophanes, topazes, citrines, alexandrites, zircons, and moonstones.
And it was from Ratnapura over the past several years that sapphires the size of supermarket baskets have been found.
So great is the affinity between Sri Lanka and its sapphires that the nation might legitimately put in for a name change to be better called Sri Sapphire. They account for 85% of the precious stones mined here – but the colour variant that gets the most acclaim is the Ceylon Blue Sapphire, the blue of cornflowers, clear skies, and inestimable, sophisticated material contentment.
Selling for $5,000 - 8,000 per carat, they are as much statements of investment as they are items of adornment: “A kiss on the hand may feel very, very good,” noted Anita Loos, “but a diamond and sapphire bracelet lasts forever”.
And so they is. Since Ptolemy noted their glittering existence here, they are much favoured for crowns, thrones, diadems, as well as jewellery for First Nights, hotel dinners and cocktail parties. Sri Lanka’s sapphires have given museums and auction houses jewels of such arresting quality as to gain themselves names and identities in the own right
Diana, Princess of Wales’s engagement ring, a mere 12-carats of Sri Lankan sapphire, rocketed into the homes of anyone with a television set when the then Prince of Wales declared his love (“whatever that is”) for her in 1981. But the lead Windsor in House of Windsor can easily eclipse this. The Suart Sapphire, said to be Sri Lankan, sits atop the very crown still worn by the British monarch, and is probably the world’s most visible sapphire.
Excepting, that is The Heart of the Ocean.
In a perfect example of nature obediently following Hollywood, the so-called Heart of the Ocean jewel in the film “Titanic,” was posthumously created following the film’s success as a 170-carat Ceylon blue sapphire. The sapphire replaced the inexpensive blue quartz flung by Kate Winslet into the icy ocean. It was worn in 1998 by Celine Dion when she sang “My Heart Will Go On” at the Oscars and was auctioned for over $2 million at a charity ball though more affordable copies of the necklace can be bought on eBay.
For art lovers there is the Fitzwilliam’s Aphrodite Sapphire, For the religious minded, the 9th century Talisman of Charlemagne. Many have found their way into other museums, to be gazed at but never again worn, like the 423-carat Logan Sapphire, the 287-carat Star of Artaban, The Bismark Sapphire (the ultimate honeymoon gift), or the 182-carat Star of Bombay, worn by “America’s sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. All four now live in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Two other world -class island sapphires shine brightly in the American Museum of Natural History - the 563.35-carat almost flawless Star of India, and the 116.75-carat Midnight Star Sapphire.
Russians, slipping through the Kremlin’s Borovitsky Gate to the State Diamond Collection, can feast on the Empress Maria's Sapphire. Despite its massive size (260.37 carats), it is surrounded by such an orgy of other rare gems, insignia, and crown jewels that it is practically invisible.
But many of the best have simply vanished – on the auction block one moment, then lost to public delight the next. The Blue Belle Of Asia, sold in 2014 for $17.29 million is one never again sighted. So too the 600-carat Blue Giant Of The Orient, last spotted in Geneva in 2004.
The first of the really colossal sapphires only appeared as recently as 1998 when the 856-carat Pride of Sri Lanka was pulled from mines of Marapanna, a few kilometres from Rathnapura. In a year overshadowed by the violent excesses of the civil war, its discovery, along with the country’s cricket team’s victory in the test match against England, was one of the country’s few bright moments.
Barely a decade later, in 2015, came The Star of Adam. At 1,444-carats, it rather brutally eclipsed the Pride of Sri Lanka. And if this was not sufficient, it also displayed a distinct 6-rayed star, an effect known amongst jewellers as “asterism.” This produces an internal reflection effect, similar to having eaten large quantities of caviar or puffing at a Cuban cigar by the fireside.
But then in July 2021, as COVID lapped around the inert streets and cities of the world a 2.6 million carat sapphire, The
Serendipity Sapphire, was discovered in Kahawatte near Ratnapura entirely by accident, when Mr Gamage, a gem trader, set workmen to dig a well. Just five months later its marginally smaller sibling, the Queen of Asia, was found in nearby Batugedara. Despatched for deeper examination and authentication, it was rumoured to be bought by a Dubai-based company for over $100 million – though the news trail has since gone cold on this remarkable discovery.
Any one of these remarkable stones would have done for my ghostly tiara, budget permitting, thought the more recently discovered ones might break my neck if so worn. Better by far to take a leaf from Mr Wijeratne’s happy book. His 9-stone ring is very commonly encountered amongst men in Sri Lanka. It is called a Nawarathne Ring, a lucky gemstone that, Mr Wijeratne’ assured me is something men need more than women. Different stones can be used for the set up, but the preferred arrangement are a ruby, garnet, tourmaline, cat’s eye, pearl and four sapphires (blue, white, yellow and padmaraga - the rarest and most prized sapphire said to radiate an “aquatic lotus blossom” colour ranging from dainty salmon pink to orange).
Perhaps, like a part remembered poem, it is enough to merely know about them, and to murmur their magical names as I walk my jungle paths, schnauzers pulling at their leads. It is certainly less onerous on the home insurance premiums.