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About Gail Howard's Ceylon Travel Adventures

Gail Howard’s travel adventures in the Southeast Asian nations of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Thailand lead her into gem smuggling – with perilous results. Feeling confident after her first haul of small gemstones nets a 420 percent profit from the tough Thai and Chinese merchants in Bangkok, Gail Howard makes another trip to Ceylon. Of course unloading that one gorgeous 54-carat blue star sapphire was a problem where cufflinks, tie tacks and rings were the market.

Pornsit Sriorathaikul of Beauty Gems in Bangkok introduces Gail Howard to Leon Mason whose family has been in the gem business for generations. They travel to Colombo, the capital of Ceylon, to wrangle with the extended Muslim clan that controls the gem trade in Ceylon. They soon enjoy the company of Idroos Noordeen in his spacious mansion, where they dine on exquisite Ceylonese cuisine.

Gail learns the complex process of bargaining for precious stones from two young Muslim dealers and quickly gets better deals than Leon, although her market is not Los Angeles but Bangkok, Saigon, Tokyo and Kyoto. After Leon flies off to Bombay, Gail remains in Ceylon and is taken to the sapphire mines in Ratnapura, and to Beruwela, to the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya, and to an arranged Muslim family wedding with 2,000 guests in Galle.

Gail tries to help a shy Muslim girl overcome her family’s cruelty and learns much about traditional Muslim customs. Gail, fascinated by a dance performance, is gifted with a private Kandian dance exhibition arranged by Mr. Mohamed Sali, the famous musical director of Ceylon movies. Alas, strict Muslim traditions prevent teaching this dance to Gail because she is a woman.

Oh, and there’s that problem with the smiling waiter at the Galle Face Hotel, who reports her to customs. Seems not even well-connected friends can keep customs at bay. At the airport, a female customs agent is assigned to perform an extensive body search on Gail. After a heart-stopping search in customs, Gail boards a flight to Singapore, vowing to pay the ten percent “smuggling tax” next trip. For good measure she arranges the firing of the snitch at the Galle Face Hotel.

Gail Howard's Gem Trade Adventures in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1965 and 1966

Written by

Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon when I used to fly there to buy sapphires and other precious stones to sell to jewelry stores in Bangkok, Tokyo and Saigon.

On my second gem buying trip to Ceylon, I learned that smuggling gems had dire consequences.

My first trip to Ceylon was without incident. I bought several hundred commercial grade blue star sapphires in three to five-carat sizes. I also bought a magnificent blue star sapphire that weighed 54 carats.

With my haul of gemstones carefully hidden, I cleared customs with no problem. First time visitors were rarely suspect. My second trip to Sri Lanka was a different story - a nightmare!

When I returned to Bangkok from my first buying trip to Ceylon, I sorted hundreds of blue star sapphires by quality, size and color, dividing them into small lots of similar stones and priced them accordingly.

It was tough negotiating with the Chinese and Thai owners of the jewelry stores in Bangkok. I could not use my usual successful rule of thumb, which was to price my merchandise so that the store could have a 100 percent markup. With gemstones, for example, if I paid $1 per carat and sold them to the store for $5 per carat, the store, in turn, might sell them for $80 per carat. I managed to sell all the commercial grade sapphires I had bought in Ceylon for a 420 percent profit.

The 54 carat sapphire was a different story. I had made a huge mistake and was stuck with a large investment in a gemstone that was not easily saleable, wholesale or retail. As one store owner explained, it might sit in his display case for a year until the right buyer walked into his store. Commercial quality sapphires had rapid turnover, set in cufflinks, tie-tacks and rings.

I shopped the 54 carat sapphire to every jewelry store in Bangkok, but couldn't sell it. I had just about given up, when Pornsit Sriorathaikul, the owner of Beauty Gems, offered me what amounted to a lowly ten percent profit. He said every jeweler in town knew my stone. His offer was good for that moment only. If I walked out of the store, his offer would be permanently withdrawn. Reluctantly, I accepted his low offer.

At the time, it never occurred to me to keep this beautiful gem for myself. I had never seen such an exquisite blue star sapphire. The 54-carat oval-shaped gem was a deep baby blue color with a perfect, well-defined, sharp star that floated over the edges. When I placed a drop of water on the surface of the stone, another star would appear. Several drops of water on the stone would create several individual stars. It thrilled me just to look at it. I think back now with regret, wondering how I was such an idiot to let it go.

Realizing that I would make wiser purchases with training, I asked Pornsit Sriorathaikul for a job in his Beauty Gems jewelry store. I offered to do anything that was needed, from waiting on customers to cleaning glass counters and windows to sweeping and mopping the floor. I would be a full-time employee for free if he would spend time teaching me the gem trade when there were no customers in the store. Pornsit declined my generous offer, saying there would be no time to spend teaching me.

A few months later, I found a better way to get my training in gemstones. I planned another gem buying trip to Ceylon and made the rounds to all the jewelry stores in Bangkok, asking which sizes and qualities of gemstones were most in demand. Each store owner, including Pornsit Sriorathaikul at Beauty Gems, spent hours showing me various gemstones and telling me how much they would pay me for each of the various sizes, qualities and colors. It was total immersion training.

The day I left on my second gem-buying trip to Ceylon, I was in Beauty Gems receiving last minute instructions from Pornsit - the same Pornsit who had turned down my offer months before to work free in exchange for teaching me the gem business. Now Pornsit was teaching me the gem trade free in preparation for my buying trip.

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