Mining the world’s finest moonstone in Sri Lanka
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Could there be a more romantic gemstone name than moonstone? Once believed to be solidified moon beams, moonstone has been a favourite for thousands of years and it’s certainly one of mine! It looks stunning on everybody and is traditionally used—especially by women—as a stone of healing for both mind and body.
Moonstone’s ethereal gleam is caused by an optical effect called adularescence, which happens when light is scattered between the microscopic layers of the gemstone’s structure. In the highest quality moonstones, you’ll see this beautiful phenomenon when you view the stone from any angle.
Moonstone can occur in several colours, but there’s only one place in the whole world that produces the exquisite blue moonstone—Meetiyagoda in southwest Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) was so associated with this mysterious gem that moonstone used to go by the name Ceylon opal.
Local legend has it that the land around Meetiyagoda has been blessed by the moon, and it’s obvious why. Underneath this small village is the world’s largest vein of a moonstone-bearing igneous rock called pegmatite.
You’d think that an area so rich in this stunning gemstone would be heavily mined and scarred by machinery, but thanks to the Sri-Lankan government’s efforts to regulate the mining industry, the blue moonstone of Meetiyagoda has been mined in the same eco-friendly way for over one hundred years. Digging by hand down through the topsoil, the miners use coconut wood scaffolding and fern leaves to prop up and line the sides of the shafts as they go. Once they hit the pegmatite layer, the miners begin to tunnel, again using coconut beams to keep the tunnels from collapsing. Collected in buckets, the moonstone-bearing gravel is then winched up the mine shaft – again by hand.
Sri-Lankan culture has retained many of its ancient indigenous and astrological beliefs and so the gravel is only washed on days considered to be lucky. Once clean, the rough gems are cut, usually into a domed oval called a cabochon as this shape shows the adularescence to its best effect.
It’s hot, dirty work, and the mines must constantly be pumped free of the water that seeps through the rock, but the locals of Meetiyagoda have built their lives and work around the moonstone mines. So, when you buy a genuine Meetiyagoda blue moonstone, you’re helping these small businesses and their families stay afloat.
Of course, moonstone isn’t the only famous Sri Lankan gemstone. Sri Lanka is a land blessed with many beautiful stones and is most famous for the quality of its blue sapphires.
If you’re planning a holiday to Sri Lanka, don’t forget pack your copy of my debut Gemstone Detective book, Buying Gemstones and Jewellery in Sri Lanka so you know exactly what to buy… and what to avoid!
Kim Rix, GG (GIA)
Be sure. Be smart. Buy with confidence.