Artisans in Sri Lanka's gem and jewellery sector are designing new products that reflect the latest trends. Their collections are making inroads in competitive European markets.
by Trade Forum editorial team
Gem cutting and jewellery making is a tradition that has developed considerably in Sri Lanka, thanks to the expertise and experience of dedicated craftsmen passed on from generation to generation. The country has been exporting gems to Europe for more than 500 years.
Jewellery production and trade is an important sector, employing approximately 3% to 5% of the workforce, particularly in the gem-rich region in the south-west of the island. In 1997, the Sri Lankan Government implemented policies to help the country become a regional centre for cutting gems, creating jewellery and trading in gold.
Technical assistance projects over the last 20 years have helped Sri Lanka to export finished jewellery, especially in silver. However, sales to the main export market, Germany, have been steadily declining.
The Sri Lanka Export Development Board was charged with developing a marketing campaign for gems and jewellery. Together with ITC and the European Commission, it launched a two-year project to export jewellery to European Union markets in October 2005. In a pilot programme, the project is helping 11 companies to catch up with the latest trends in jewellery, produce pieces that comply with technical specifications that vary from market to market and introduce new collections to a broader European market.
"They were all designing and producing good jewellery, but their products were not picking up the latest trends and they were not in touch with the market," says international project consultant Walter Schroder, a jewellery designer and technical expert who has 19 years' experience in the Sri Lankan gem and jewellery sector.
Staying on top of trends
Jewellery trends are constantly evolving. For example, many of today's consumers prefer exotic dangling elements to the square, simpler designs Sri Lankan companies were exporting to the German market.
"This trend is coming to Germany, but it is really strong right now in the United Kingdom, Spain and other European countries, where consumers prefer more playful design in jewellery," says Mr Schroder.
Colour trends also come and go. Now, consumers are buying pink and dark blue gems, and semi-precious stones such as green peridots and golden-coloured citrines.
Mr Schröder worked closely with the companies' designers to inform them about the latest trends and help them adapt their original designs into new lines. Working with three local experts - one in design and two in production - he also gave advice and training on how best to prepare and present collections.
The result is an impressive collection of silver jewellery - earrings, brooches, rings, bracelets and necklaces - that showcases both the creative talents of the people working in the sector and the country's resources of precious gems.
Nearly all of the companies are family-owned, small and medium-sized firms that employ between four and 20 people. Each has an in-house designer or someone working on a contract basis. This was a prerequisite for participating in the project.
"We wanted to make sure that the expertise and knowledge gained during the life of the project was embedded in the local company," says Mr Schroder. …