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How to buy sapphires in a Sri Lankan street market

Option 3: buying from an outdoor street market

Sri Lanka mapIf you’re looking for some excitement, a challenge, and a bit of fun, buy your sapphire at one of Sri Lanka’s outdoor street markets! There are 3 very well-known gemstone markets in Sri Lanka: Nivithigala, Ratnapura and Beruwala.

If this is what you want to do, then you’ll need to be savvy. I strongly recommend that you don’t go without a guide. You’ll get a real sense of the bustling gem trade from an outdoor market, but be aware that they are crowded and chaotic. You won’t find neatly lined up stalls and bunting – you’ll find crowds of buyers and dealers milling around, dealers pulling their gemstones out of pockets and pouches, people selling off the back of motorbikes. You’ll see a lot of Sri Lankan dealers selling to each other, and many people wearing head torches and head goggles (magnifying glasses). It’ll be hot and noisy. A lot of people will try to put their stones in your hands. So how do you go about it? Let’s take you through the steps to buying a stone in an outdoor market.

1. Find yourself a guide to be your broker:

If you are sociable and like to make friends on holiday, you may well meet someone who can act as your guide and negotiator in the market. In Sri Lanka, many people have more than one job. The person who works in your hotel reception might also deal gemstones or know someone who does. Be cautious though, and don’t trust anyone who seems pushy or too desperate to help you.

If you already have friends or colleagues in Sri Lanka, ask them to help you find a guide. Though Sri Lankans involved in the tourist industry usually speak some degree of English, you need to be aware that the gemstone markets are where local dealers trade to each other. Their English can be very limited, and you will need someone to act as an interpreter. Another thing to bear in mind is that without a local guide or gem dealer/trader, you are unlikely to be able to find the person who sold you the stone if you need to exchange it for some reason.

2. Lose the tourist look:

• Don’t take a camera to the market
• Don’t carry a handbag
• Don’t expose your money or phone
• Don’t wear expensive jewellery or a pricey watch
• Don’t dress inappropriately – keep shoulders and knees covered

3. Remember the rules:

Keep a level head when shown a stone. Look at it and if you don’t want it, be firm but polite. Say, “No thanks”, and give it back along with a reason for your decision, for example, “It’s not big enough,” or, “It’s not the right colour.”

Don’t take more than one stone in your hand at once and do make sure you give it back to the person who gave it to you. Some tourists get tricked into believing that they’ve given the wrong stone back or haven’t given the stone back at all.

Be aware of where you are standing and don’t let yourself get crowded. Find a space with your back to the wall so you can see what everyone around you is doing. Don’t stand over a drain in case you drop the stone – or in case someone tries to trick you into believing you’ve dropped it.

The key is to remain polite, f rm and in control. Don’t be rude, don’t get hot and bothered, and don’t let yourself get pushed and shoved around.

4. Negotiate price:

For rough stones, there is no standard price. It’s up to the seller or miner what they’ll take for it. Don’t accept the first price you are given. Remember, though, that the negotiation process and final price will be different for you than for a local.

Sapphire mine, Sri Lanka

My advice is to start by offering 75% of what you’re willing to pay and increase this gradually. For example, if you are looking to spend £1000, start at £750 and work upwards by £100. Don’t go up £250 straight away. On the other hand, you might start as low as to offer 10% of the asking price. Be aware that this tactic could backfire – if you start too low, the seller will reject your offer and will not take any more offers from you. Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to negotiating and you’ll simply need to use your instinct.

For cut stones there is a standard price, but that standard price depends on the clarity, size and colour. There is certainly room for negotiation! There are two ways to go about it:

I. Tell your broker what you are willing to pay. The broker will negotiate on your behalf, adding in his own profit. You will then pay the broker in full, and he will pass on the negotiated price to the gemstone owner, keeping the profit for himself. For example, you tell the broker to spend £200. The broker might negotiate £150 and keep the remaining £50 as his fee.

II. Get your broker to introduce you to the gemstone owner, and then do your own negotiating. If you do this, you should know that it’s customary and a mark of respect to pay your broker a sum of money for the introduction. This is normally 5% of the purchase price.

Negotiating in the gem market might seem scary if you’re a novice, but it can give you a great sense of adventure and achievement. Be brave, and may the force be with you!

5. Get it tested and certified:

The most difficult aspect of buying at a gemstone market is identifying whether a gemstone is natural, synthetic or imitation. With all the excitement, heat and pressure it’s easy to give in to buying before you check. DON’T! Make sure it is real. You must make sure you are not being sold a cheaper imitation or, worse, something out of a Christmas cracker!

Don’t be fooled by poetic-sounding names. Water sapphire is NOT real sapphire but a semi-precious stone called iolite.

Any market gem dealer should be happy to walk with you to the nearest gem lab to get your gemstone tested for authenticity. At this point, what you need is confirmation from the lab that what you have in your hands is really what the dealer says it is. You can get paper certification later; a verbal assurance is fine for now.

Extracted from Kim Rix’s very excellent book The Gemstone Detective, buying Gemstones and Jewellery in Sri Lanka. Visit her website, follow her on Facebook, or buy your copy here.

Kim Rix's new book, gemstone detective, Sri Lanka

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