Giving back, moving forward
“I’m grateful for the opportunity the US has offered,” Sheahan Stephen shared with me in a recent fascinating interview. Born in Sri Lanka, the “Sapphire Capital of the World,” Sheahan, at age six, migrated with his family to the US, fleeing his native conflict-torn homeland, seeking the opportunity to live a peaceful, productive life. Settling in Portland, Oregon he pursued engineering, working in the field for five years.
“But I had the desire to go into business for myself. I thought, ‘Let me see what the gemstone industry is like,’” perhaps a natural thought for a native Sri Lankan. His homeland has mined gems for thousands of years. “30% of Sri Lanka’s GDP comes from the industry. So my desire took me back to my roots.
“In 2006 I took the plunge. I went back to my native home with $12,000, my savings, to buy gems. My goal was to use my business as a platform to help educate and train others both here and in my native land.
“Sri Lanka was entrenched in civil war from 1983-2009 amongst the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, the predominantly Hindu native Tamils and the minority Muslims. The peace in 2009 was an uneasy one. In my view it’s faith that’s ‘non-centered’ that can lead to conflict and corruption. I wanted to do something about it, to help educate and expand horizons, to open up views as to what’s important, to give back.
“My goal was clear but I’ve faced struggles. My path has required sacrifices. My first year in business I was robbed and injured. I had to start again from scratch. My family’s dream for me was for a secure professional career – such as an engineer. Starting a risky entrepreneurial venture didn’t make sense to them. Although my mom’s always been supportive, my family was not. The first years were tough. Moving to San Francisco to engage a more mainstream market I was essentially homeless, living in my office for three years.
“But these initial trials changed the way I thought. Surrounded by others in the SF Bay Area who were highly educated, tech savvy, I started thinking more strategically, became more motivated. At the time I was dating someone in Toronto so I would visit there regularly, selling Sri Lankan gems to Tamil jewelry stores who were eager to help support a new business owner, one of their own.’’
Almost 400,000 Tamils live in Toronto, a city welcoming to those fleeing the violence in their native state. “I was going to Sri Lanka twice yearly and selling out my lots of gems in 3-4 weeks. It was a good beginning. But I needed to reach out to the mainstream.
“I joined AGS and AGTA and exhibited at JCK Vegas. I partnered with Sri Lankan miners, bringing a practical approach to the native mining methods of treatments and cutting. Sri Lankans have always been environmentally conscious, respectful of their land. The traditional pit mining method involves digging a rectangular pit and digging for gems of all types in that area – sapphires, garnets, tourmalines. In the 50 square kilometers around Ratnapura there are roughly 5000 small artisanal gem pits. Miners are careful how deeply they dig, covering and reforesting the area when finished.
“I have two visions. On the gemstone level it’s to support our industry here and abroad. On the broader humanistic level, it’s to use my growing knowledge and influence to help make a real difference in people’s lives here and internationally. We’re in beginning conversations with the U.S. State Department and the United Nations. Our goal is to work closely with governmental organizations to foster education and ethical business practices – transparent vertically integrated supply chains.”
Sheahan is an acknowledged industry expert, speaking at AGS Conclaves, active in AGTA governance. “I’ve focused on sapphires since 2008. The cornflower blue is a rich popular color with nice saturation and a silkiness that projects a velvet quality like the finest Kashmiris. The bright royal blue is increasingly popular. Look for the upcoming trends of greens and peach colors. Our team of Sri Lankan cutters can provide custom cuts and colors to suit the clients’ needs.
“My route to success has been my intuition, desire to learn, knowledge and the sharing of knowledge. My life has impacted and molded me. In the San Francisco area I’ve experienced that homelessness and mental illness are ongoing issues. We want to generate revenue for shelters, to give back to the community, both here and internationally.”
To find out more about Sheahan, his sapphires and his mission visit www.sssapphires.com or call him at 503-805-6821.
Mia Katrin is an award-winning jewelry designer featured in over 100 top stores nationally. She is available for lectures and seminars. To add her Collections or book a lecture: www.jeweljewel.com, 877-539-3569, facebook.com/MiaKatrinforJEWELCOUTURELLC, subscribe to her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/channel/UC2B-53XBuB_HD5-bofc5jAA