RUBIES IN MYANMAR

RUBIES

Rubies are the rarest and most valuable gem stones. They and their sister gems, sapphires, account for more than half the world's trade in colored stones. Rubies and sapphires are the second hardest gemstones after diamonds. They are variations of the mineral corundum, which is also used in sandpaper. [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991,╔]

Rubies and sapphires are different colors of corundum, the crystalline form of aluminum oxide. Pure aluminum oxide is colorless, but very minute amounts of trace elements can create a wide variety of colors. Iron produces both green and yellow. A combination of chromium and iron creates orange. A combination of titanium and iron produces blue. A little bit of chromium causes pink. These are all sapphires. Rubies are corundum crystals that have enough chromium in them to be red. Star sapphires are sapphires with three sets of inclusions in different directions that produce the effect known as asterism— light reflected in intersecting bands.

Before diamonds rose in prominence, rubies were the most desired of all gem stones. European kings, Middle Eastern sultans and Indian maharajas all sought them. Arabian Nights described a magical valley where they were produced that was guarded by huge carnivorous birds called rocs. Treasure hunters threw meat to the birds, who placed the rubies of cliffs. When the treasure seekers tried to collect them with the birds often ate them.

In the old days any red gem was referred to as a ruby. These included garnets, spinels, tourmalines and true rubies. Gemologist Fred Ward wrote in National Geographic, "When biblical authors wrote that wisdom 'is more precious than rubies' or that a virtuous woman's 'price is far above rubies,' they probably were referring to carbuncles, a term for any crystals the color of glowing embers. Eleventh century Arabs used weight to differentiate rubies from less valuables red spinels. Yet medieval kings often believed their spinels were rubies."╔

See Separate Article RESOURCES IN MYANMAR: GOLD, COPPER MINES, GEMS AND SANCTIONS

Gems and Birthstones

Most gems are crystals formed by the cooling of hot gases, solutions and melts deep inside the earth. When excited atoms lose energy from cooling they form a lattice, typical of crystals. The natural laws that create gems are the same as those that create snowflakes and salt, except that tremendous pressures and temperatures are needed. Diamonds can only form at depths of 100 miles or more below the earth's surface where pressures are a million pounds per square inch and temperatures are above 2,500̊F.

Gems are classified as precious, semiprecious and ornamental stones. The size and weight of many gem is measured in carats. Carat is an ancient term which denotes the uniform weight of a carob seed— 1/142 of an ounce, 1/5 of a gram, or 200 milligrams. The value of a gem is often determined more by the quality of the stone and lack of imperfections than by size. Cut is term that describes the quality as well as shape of a gem. A loupe is a one-eyed lenses used by jewelers to examines gems closely.

Ancient man wore different kinds of stones as ornaments and jewelry. There is evidence of trade of exotic stones in Europe as far back as 28,000 B.C. Historical record from India in 300 B.C. describe the mining of moonstones, sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, garnets and agates.

These days all gems are tampered with to some degree. Rubies and sapphires are heated to change their color. A clear topaz can be transformed into a blue one with a dose of radiation. And internal debris is removed from within diamonds with minuscule laser holes. It often very difficult for ordinary people to tell real gems from doctored ones from outright fakes. Glass and man-made zirconia are both passed of as rubies and sapphires.

Birthstones: 1) January: Garnet; 2) February: Amethyst; 3) March: Aquamarine; 4) April: Diamond; 5) May: Emerald; 6) June: Pearl of Alexandrine; 7) July: Ruby; 8) August: Peridot; 9) September: Sapphire; 10) October: Opal or Tourmaline; 11) November: Topaz; 12) December: Turquoise of Zircon.

Ruby and Sapphire Market

Little affected by weathering, rubies and sapphires are found frequently in alluvial deposits. Burma produces the most valuables gems; Sri Lanka perhaps the second best. Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Montana also supply large numbers of stones and the most recent newcomers are China and Vietnam.╔

The 423 carat Logan sapphire is perhaps the most famous large, cut sapphires. Australia's dark blue sapphires have traditionally dominated the low end market. The sapphire mine is Rubyvale is said to be the largest of its kind in the world. The 7,500 acre mine produces 12,500 carats a day, and it can keep churning them out at that rate for at least 16 more years.╔

Large gem quality rubies are 30 to 50 times more rare than diamonds. A ten-carat top-quality ruby can sell for more that US$200,000. A flawless white diamond the same size might bring a forth of that amount. The demand for colored gems soared in the 1980s and ruby prices soared higher and faster than the others.╔

Thais control the world sapphire and ruby market. Thai dealers, for example, buy Australian sapphires for an average 30 cents a carat. About 20 percent of it will be heat treated and cut, selling wholesale in the United States for $8 to $50 a carat." Rubies are the most popular Burmese gem in the U.S., with official imports from Myanmar of $87.4 million in 2006. Unofficial imports are probably much higher.

Burmese Rubies

The Burmese call rubies "desire fulfilling stones." They believe that wearing them increase sex-appeal and guards against danger and ill-health. The largest cut ruby weighs 1184 carats. It was from Burma. The government own a 500 carat ruby giant. "We will not cut it,” said one official, "It is a national treasure.” [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991, ╔]

Rubies are one the biggest earners of foreign exchange for the Myanmar government. About 90 percent of the world's rubies come from the country, whose red stones are prized for their purity and hue. Thailand buys the majority of the country's gems. Burma's "Valley of Rubies", the mountainous Mogok area, 200 kilometers (120 mi) north of Mandalay, is noted for its rare pigeon's blood rubies and blue sapphires. In 2006, the Myanmar government earned about $300 million from the sale of rubies and circumvented sanctions by routing the gemstones through China, India and Thailand. Government officials say jade has replaced rubies as the main attraction at a state-run auction held in Yangon.

Officially all of Myanmar's gems belong to the state, which operated five-open pits and two underground ruby and sapphire mines in the 1980s. Theoretically all stones go to Yangon, where first class stones are presented at an annual foreign-currency only sale. However, most gems are diverted by smugglers and who operate through 400 square miles of gem-bearing mountains. Its relatively easy to get the gems out of the country without the government knowing since it control few of the country's borders.╔

In an attempt to bring the ruby and sapphire trade out into the open, the Myanmar government offers citizens two year leases on gem-bearing properties. The miners keep half of what they find and give the other half to the government who sell the gems and give the miners half. In the first seven months of 1990, about 200 operators reported producing 432,909 carats of stones.╔

At 23.1 carats, the Carmen Lucia Ruby is one of the most perfect large Burmese rubies in the world. Placed on ring flanked by two triangular diamond, it was given to the Smithsonian magazine in August 2004 by Peter Buck, an investor and retired physicist who worked at New York's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. The ruby is named after of his wife, Carmen Lúcia Buck, who died in 2003. Mrs. Buck was a collector of jewels as well as a philanthropist. She had learned of the ruby from jeweler Frank Cappiello of Danbury, Connecticut, who, in 2002, had heard that it might be coming on the market after many years in private hands. Mr. Buck helped underwrite a friend's submarine sandwich shop, which evolved into the Subway chain. [Source: Owen Edwards, Smithsonian magazine, February 2005 >*<]

The oval-shaped ruby was mined in the 1930s in the Mogok region of Myanmar and is one of the largest fine faceted Burmese rubies in the world. (Burmese rubies are prized for their color; the Carmen Lúcia is a bright red with undertones of pink and purple, a coveted hue known to gem dealers as "pigeon blood red."”) The stone's provenance since it was first cut is unclear. "We don't know who owned the stone before international gem dealers bought it 15 years ago," the Smithsonian magazine said, "but it's not so unusual to have remarkable stones remain for generations in private family vaults." When such a treasure surfaces, Post says, "it causes a major stir in the gem world." >*<

Mogok Ruby Mine in Myanmar

The Mogok region north of Mandalay contains one of the world's richest ruby mines. While other Burmese cities use World War II jeeps for taxis, Mogok, a city of 100,000 people, is a buzz with new Japanese cars and motorbikes. Most of the work is done by hand which entails sifting through mounds of gravel in pools of muddy water. Large "star rubies" that are pigeon red in color are found this way. [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991, ╔]

Rubies are said to have been mined in the Mogok Valley since A.D. 500. "No other gem source is so steeped in mystery and lore," says Ward about the fabled Mogok Stone Tract. "Many of the spectacular rubies collected by India's maharajahs, Persia's shahs and Turkey's sultans originated at Mogok. This region produces the storied "pigeon's blood" rubies, a unique red found in only a few gems a year. The distinctive glow , caused mainly by chromium's fluorescence, once inspired an old Thai trader to declare, ‘Asking to see the pigeon blood is like asking to see the face of God.’"╔

At the government mines high pressure hoses are used to flush away clay, dirt, and sand, leaving gravel and rough gemstones. The materials are trapped inside a wash box and when a log gate is open, the gravel and gems—mainly sapphires—tumble over jigs. Vibrating racks are then used to separate the heavier sapphires from the smaller ones.╔

Mogok

Mogok (128 miles to the north-east of Mandalay. and 60 miles to the east of Irrawaddy river) is where most of Myanmar’s rubies and sapphires are mined. The town of Mogok lies in a beautiful mountain valley with the Great Lake of Mogok in the center of the town. The mountain ranges of Mogok are a part of the great Shan plateau. The residents are mostly Lisus and Shans who make their living by mining and cutting, polishing and marketing gemstones.

For centuries, rubies and sapphires have been found here. In the old days, it is said, these gems were so abundant that they could be scooped up by hand from among tufts of grass-roots in the hill-side kitchen garden. Gems so begotten are now known as 'grass-root stones'. And the kind of loose upper soil where they are easily found is named 'Manipur paydirt' because in old days Manipur immigrants were ordered by the king to work the mines. In those days the price of ordinary rubies was almost nothing. They were seen everywhere: bought and sold everyday. Only extraordinary ones: large, flawless and of pigeon-blood color were considered valuable. Rich men, lords, ladies, sawbwas (chieftains) and kings used to collect only those extraordinary gem-stones. And among gems. rubies rank No.1.

Mogok and its environs –– Momeik, Twin, Nge, Thabeikkyin and Waphyudaung — together comprise a a gem-bearing area of 1916 square miles. There are now over 1000 mines, which are of two main types –– tunnel and open-cut. Small-scale traditional mines. such as lay-bin-gyin (four-sided pits, three feet square) are also worked in some places. Rubies and sapphires are found in most of the mines and they bring the highest prices. Mogok also produces numerous gems of lesser quality such as alexandrite, amethyst, apatite, aquamarine, black tourmaline, black John, danburite, flourite, garnet, green tourmaline, lapis lazuli, moonstone, peridot, quartz, rose quartz, spinel, topaz, white sapphire and zircon. Some years in the past, private mines in Mogok were all closed and even Myanmar nationals who visited Mogok didn’t have the chance to see how the famous mines worked.

Mogok Rubies

Modernjeweler.com reported: “For centuries, the mystique surrounding Burma ruby has centered on stones from one extensive jungle tract known as Mogok. So valued were Mogok's rubies that England annexed Upper Burma in 1885 rather than let French firms negotiate mining deals there. Today the mere mention of this origin point still invites expectations of ruby so high that a Mogok ruby is considered the gem equivalent of a Rembrandt painting. [Source: modernjeweler.com ]

But Mogok isn't just the 70 square miles of a 400-square-mile area east of Mandalay that have variously been combed for ruby for 700 years at least. To the few gemologists and dealers who have visited this ruby-rich locality since a 28-year ban on travel there was lifted in 1991, the term Mogok now encompasses nearly a dozen far-flung mining sites throughout Burma, many of which are recent workings. However, because the finest rubies from each of these old and new deposits possessed similarly stellar appearance, color, and transparency, ruby experts let the place-name Mogok serve both as a composite for Burma's ruby localities and a generic for the unsurpassed excellence of their top stones. In other words, Mogok is a quality-assurance term for fine Burmese ruby the way Muzo is for fine Colombian emerald. Or so it was until 1992. That's when Mogok suddenly ceased to be Burma's main ruby-mining district and the country's stones lost the long-standing privilege and protection of the Mogok name.

Here's why. Before 1969, the year Burma's gem mines were nationalized by the country's ruling generals, Mogok was, for all practical purposes, the world's sole significant source of ruby. But the sudden cut-off of Burmese material forced the market to rely on Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia for ruby.

Mong Shu Rubies and Their Impact on Ruby Quality

Modernjeweler.com reported: “Early in this decade, just as Thailand's mines were being exhausted, Burma reasserted mining leadership when rubies from a mammoth new deposit at Mong Hsu (pronounced variously "Mong" or "Maing" Shu) to the southeast of Mogok began flooding the Bangkok market. Almost overnight, Mong Hsu goods became "five to ten times more plentiful" than Thai goods in the heyday of that country's ruby production. Ever since, Thailand has been a ruby processor only. Don't get the wrong idea, though. Without Thai gem alchemy, most ruby, Mong Hsu's especially, would be unsellable. This total dependence on heat-treatment has made Mong Hsu goods equal cause for celebration and consternation. For the first time in years, decent-quality Burmese ruby has been widely available at bargain prices. But while makers and marketers of low-end jewelry cheered, their counterparts on the market's high end jeered. Why the sharp difference in opinion? [Source: modernjeweler.com ]

When Mogok was the preeminent source of ruby, heating was common but not essential. But with Mong Hsu material, which is zoned with blue areas and clouded with fissures when mined, enhancement is as much a prerequisite as it is for Colombian emerald. In the case of Mong Hsu ruby, however, enhancement involved heating rather than oil or epoxy impregnation. Yet even after heating, Mong Hsu's best aren't comparable in quality or looks to Mogok's best.

In no time at all, the gem world was threatened with a major provenance crisis having to do with the “fifth C”: country of origin. Here's how Richard Hughes, author of Ruby and Sapphire, explains this crisis: "You now have two distinctly different types of Burmese ruby. First, there are stones from older localities that are what you might call classic Mogok-type rubies. Second, there are stones from Mong Hsu that usually fall far below the Mogok ideal and are worth far less. Yet origin reports often fail to distinguish between the two. Is that fair to consumers?"

It is a question with which the directors of many of these labs are wrestling. "It would not be difficult to differentiate between Mogok and Mong Hsu ruby," says Ken Scarratt of the American Gem Trade Association's Gemological Testing Center in New York. "But doing so might create demand to pinpoint mines in other countries such as Thailand where far less data is available to aid in such determinations."

Nevertheless, Scarratt may soon have no choice in the matter. Dealers who regularly buy in Thailand, the world's chief corundum trading center, note a growing number of specialists in Mogok ruby who are doing all they can to create a two-tier market between Mogok and Mong Hsu stones. "Since Mong Hsu ruby requires heat treatment and Mogok ruby doesn't, these dealers are now refraining from heating goods in order to further distance Mogok from Mong Hsu," a New York ruby dealer. In other words, Mogok is being positioned as a source of stones that are not only aesthetically superior to those of Mong Hsu but all-natural to boot. If this market strategy succeeds, get ready for the Mogok mystique to work more magic than ever before.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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