Aging is difficult for a former beauty. For many old dames, it’s either go under the knife, binge on Botox or age gracefully. But with some fortitude and ambition, the once grand beauty of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s, Mount Lavinia Hotel, opted for all without any noticeable scars or pin pricks. This colonial building is again glamorous to the point that while I was there in December, 2012, since it was wedding season, there were at least two grand, posh affairs each day, to which I, when I was taking photos, was invited. This is the perfect example of the openness and generosity that personifies this city.
The garden flowers of the Mount Lavinia Hotel were expected. The unexpected were the awesome colourful, silver tinsel and brightly lit Christmas trees (really triangular strong metal material in sculptural pyramidal shapes), which in the evening’s darker hues, is a unique sight against the white of the hotel’s facade. Color is part of what makes Sri Lanka so exceptional.
They were certainly tempting wedding invites but I had work to do and only a slight window of opportunity to see the capital city with approximately one million people. And for the country that has had it’s fair share of turmoils and battles, there are brighter daysfor the future and they weren’t just on the colourful Noel trees. But all that is in the past. The present and future look like the star sapphires for which Sri Lanka is renown and the reason it’s known as,The Gem Island.
I arrived bleary eyed after arriving one very early morning after a twenty seven hour trip, but this didn’t stop me from noticing the glorious sunrise and panoramic scene over the Indian Ocean which I watched from my suite’s balcony. Happily, the room overlooked the horizon, a fine beach, swaying trees and colorful foliage.
But there’s more to Colombo besides beaches. The President’s Residence, quaintly known as The Queen’s House, is a fine example of the architecture of the past, the city’s Clock Tower, certainly attracts devotees to the centre of the city, the Cinnamon Gardens add a fragrant air and cricket greens always seems to have games in play. Plus there’s Pettah Bazaar which travelers enjoy for their culture and the also charming streets with various, local offerings and temptations from food to shopping. Temples, mosques, art museums, brightly colored sari clad women and the younger set wearing the latest, trendiest Western styles, restaurants that equal the number of the myriad of jewellery stores, make this a haven for those who want the experiences of being in a country far from home.
Although, one wouldn’t know from the drive from the airport where there are still mainly one story, tired, desolate looking store fronts, that now new, shiny, mini malls have taken a proud shopping stand among the old. Locals love their malls which are generally packed with potential consumers. Another surprise is how fashion, from shoes to clothing and jewellery, had my jaw dropping to see that the smaller shops are still surviving as well as the country even with the competition. Once considered one of the poorest in the world, Sri Lanka, is on its way from a has-been to a fine emerging country with strong economy.
Not unlike many other Asian cities, Colombo has major traffic jams. The snarled traffic has alternative with the efficient and humorous-looking tuk tuks or trishaws, as they move in and out of these massive juggernauts with seemingly not a care in the world. It’s only the faces of the foreign passengers that display sheer fear. But this mode of getting from A to B is inexpensive and a time saver as these three wheelers sneak between the clutter of cars.
Another survival gimmick I learned, was how to cross the car-infested narrow streets since the drivers avoid taking notice of pedestrian zebra lines and often don’t even stop for red lights. So walking beside a local who is about to cross to the other side or stay put, is now on my survival kit list.
Once a country with so many spices sold to the rest of the world that it was hard to keep count of the number, there is again a thriving spice business, along with a huge textile industry, production of mountains of rice for export, ditto their tea and a great envious supply of oil.
But my reasons for being in Colombo was to see another major export at the the International Gem, Mineral and Jewellery Show, the second bi-annual exhibit sponsored by the Sri Lanka Export Development Board of Gemologists Association of Sri Lanka hence the monider,The Gem Island (Ratna-Dweepa).
Gemstones are often found in streams, rivers and flood plains and are considered the “natural wealth” of the country. Sri Lanka has the highest density of gemstones compared to the size of the country’s area.
Sri Lanka has a mother lode including topaz, citrine, amethyst, quartz, beryl, aquamarine, ruby, blue moonstone, many colours of tourmalines and especially the world’s best sapphires, again in multi colors like rare pink and yellow.
This convention venue was the perfect forum to represent these gems to the world for investment opportunities and also to see a stunning fashion show which not only included the jewelry designs being worn but also locally designed exquisite saris and cocktail wear, showing off their textile industry and talented designers.
Business was booming as many Chinese and Russian buyers seemed to be the big spenders with their presence in the 100 plus vendors’ showcases. Large, genuine, investment stones sold well to those economically comfortable countries’ purchasers. And the event was open to the public which sold at retail prices but with a bit of humor, bargaining for a lesser price is expected.
On show for just a short while was the sapphire known as The Star of Lanka, a 393 carat star sapphire brought in under guard, an amazing sight owned by the Sri Lankan Government.
This jewellery show exhibit is hoping to compete with fairs in New York, Hong Kong, LasVegas and Tucson, Arizona, all long established and well attended venues. Sri Lanka may well meet the expectations with their plethora of colored gems.
The Commerce and Trade official, who gave a short, informal talk, stated that this country, is now emerging and with labour costs still lower than those in other countries. Cutting, polishing and finishing executed in Sri Lanka, should make these stones more affordable this side of the world.The issue is always price and I found many wonderful stone-encrusted pieces, some relatively well priced compared to North America and Europe. However, unless you’ve done your homework and come with comparative prices, the amount could often near the same. Tourists seem to be the target. That should be looked into by the government so as not to lose out on the opportunity and take advantage of making their gems more affordable then other very competitive market places. From what I heard and discussed, it would be better to make less profit by lowering their price tags than no profit at all.
Since diamonds and gold have become too expensive for most of the manufacturers and dealers in Sri Lanka, to keep prices down, designers and Sri Lankan manufacturersopt instead for silver often set with zircons or the famed blue moonstones and less costly colored gems instead of diamonds. If and when gold is used, it ranges from 14 karat, 18 karat and some in 22 karat gold, but then prices are out of touch with reality.
“With gold being so highly priced, we discovered that our colored gemstones look great in silver,” I was told by several dealers. The are right. The items were exquisite as were the special and often very large, loose stones.
Silver never looked so good.
Among the stand -out stalls, were Raja Jewellers Ltd., which recreated a small, chic boutique and Zam Gems, both organizers of the fashion show but the jewelry, most unfortunately, was just to difficult to see from where I sat. Other really smart dealers, some with headquarters in other cities, were the 4th generation, Aminra Gem & Jewellery Ltd., also Prasanna Gem Centre located in Kandy where I thought the prices of their over-treated stones and substitute crystals for diamonds, were far too expensivefor the customer. Serene and Gamini Gem & Jewellery Ltd. have well known reputations. A New York dealer planned to spend $500,000 at Gaminia, since he has known and worked with them before.
Off that venue, I found that, Sparkling Gems & Jewels in the Mount Lavinia Hotel’s shopping arcade, very impressive but again, a bit too expensive in comparative with what’s available in stores in Europe and North America.
My personal one objection is that too many stones were over treated hence creating overly vibrant colored, fake looking stones. For my taste, the more natural, the better.
But the bottom line is that this was a well attended, well displayed showing and since this is only the second exhibit (2012), the future looks as great as the plethora of the gemstones of Sri Lanka as long as the price tags are competitive with the worldwide wholesale industry.
No matter, in time, tourism will rise and lucky travelers will see a country that sparkles like their rare sapphires.