Risky Business: Mining and Trading Sri Lankan Gems in the Indian Ocean Region

Principal Investigator

Nethra Samarawickrema
Anthropology Department, Stanford School of Humanities & Sciences


Stanford Graduate School of Business
Research Locations Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka
Award Date March 2017
Award Type PhD Fellowship


My dissertation examines the exchange of Sri Lankan gemstones across the Indian Ocean region, drawing on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Sri Lanka, South India, Hong Kong and Singapore. It traces the movements of these gems from rural mining villages in Sri Lanka’s Sabaragamuwa province, to markets on its coast, and from these markets to transnational trading centers in Hong Kong. It examines the social relations and exchanges of gems, capital and credit between a diverse range of people who constitute the commodity chain, from mineworkers, mine managers and wealthy mine owners to gem cutters, brokers, small-scale traders, and powerful family firms. The dissertation focuses closely on two aspects of gem commodity chains: The first part addresses mining, attending to the lives and working conditions of Sinhalese miners who pursue wageless work for a small share of gem profits. It considers how unequal caste and class relations between mine owners and workers, as well as poverty in Sri Lanka’s mineral rich Sabaragamuwa province shapes their speculative pursuits. The second part considers trading, examining how trade across ethnically segmented networks is shaped by intergenerational relationships, speculative trade, credit-based exchange, discourses about trust, and transnational ties. My research aims to break fresh ground in ethnographic and historical scholarship on commodity histories and global supply chains. Departing from analyses that predominantly focus on how commodity movements are driven by global inequalities between centers of production and circulation, my research focuses instead on how a range of local social relations, inflected by hierarchies of caste and class and alliances across lines of ethnicity, religion and national belonging enable the movement of gems from rural mining towns to coastal markets and to transnational trading centers across the Indian Ocean region.