‘Improving the Gem & Jewelry Industry – Challenges to Overcome, Opportunities to Seize” –Mr. A. H. M. Imtizam, the Chairman of the SLGJA
The history of Sri Lanka’s Gem and Jewelry 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 jewelry of the best quality. With the approach of the premier annual event of the industry – the FACETS International Gem & Jewelry Exhibition – in September, organized by the Sri Lanka Gem & Jewelry Association, the entire industry is abuzz with anticipation and excitement.
We met up with the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Gem & Jewelry Association, Mr. A. H. M. Imtizam to discuss his views on the history and current status of the industry.
Describing the journey of the Sri Lankan Gem & Jewelry industry following its inception, Mr. Imtizam explained, “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.”
“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 & Jewelry industry currently utilizes 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 jewelry designs for the watch industry. This calls for work of extreme precision and machinery of the highest standards”, stated Mr. Imtizam, when questioned about the current situation of the Gem & Jewelry industry in Sri Lanka.
Speaking about the major challenges the industry has faced and is currently facing, Mr. Imtizam explained that 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 jewelry between Sri Lanka and foreign countries. The biggest challenge faced by jewelry manufacturers today is the diminishing number of gold smiths. The lack of awareness in the jewelry villages when it comes to modern technology and machinery is also a significant obstacle in the industry.
On the subject of opportunities met by the industry over the years, Mr. Imtizam provided a detailed account of the Colonial period which saw the further expansion of gem and jewelry commerce. He also explained that prior to the introduction of the Government’s ban on gold importation, the industry had been cottage-based with the practice of gem and jewelry 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 organized form of manufacturing. This allowed the Sri Lankan Gem & Jewelry industry to match the pace of the global community and keep up with international practices and trade.
When asked to describe the contribution of the Gem & Jewelry industry towards the development of Sri Lanka’s socio-economic situation, the Chairman of the SLGJA stated, “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 centers of the gem trade such as Ratnapura, Beruwala, Galle, etc.”
Discussing what has and will always set the Sri Lankan Gem & Jewelry industry apart from those of other nations, Mr. Imtizam explained that Sri Lanka boasts a true mine-to-market industry, both domestically and for export in a fascinating blend of tradition, experience and modernization. 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-honored 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, utilizing 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.
“FACETS has provided small time gem and jewelry 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 recognizing this need. Also foreign buyers on the lookout for that special Ceylon Sapphire now know exactly where to look”, replied Mr. Imtizam when asked for his opinion on how the FACETS International Gem & Jewelry Exhibition contributed to the development of the industry in Sri Lanka.
On the foreseeable future of the Sri Lankan Gem & Jewelry industry, Mr. Imtizam predicted “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.”