A team of 40 gemmologists and gem traders, led by gemmologist Kennedy Ho, ventured into a field expedition in Mogok, Myanmar – a legendary source of the world’s most sought-after rubies and sapphires. It was an adventure, thanks to the potentially perilous one thousand or so turns on the snaky mountain roads to Mogok. A pilgrimage for gemmologists, the trip was also a humbling experience: Discovering the history of and mining difficulties in Mogok while understanding its future, and getting to know the hidden treasure behind the gems – the people of Mogok.
Situated strategically between China and India, Myanmar provides a gateway to other Southeast Asian nations. It is rich in natural resources such as jadeite, rubies, sapphires, pearls, amber and other coloured gemstones. The most important gem and jewellery capitals are Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw, Mogok and Pharkent.
According to Dr. Aung Kyaw Win, vice-president of Myanmar Gems and Jewelry Entrepreneurs’ Association (MGJEA), Myanmar started to import and export jewellery in September 2018. Pending government approval, the country is also set to export polished gems. At present, rough gems are restricted for export and foreigners are only allowed to source these materials through auctions.
“Myanmar was under military government for more than 50 years. Since 2010, a quasi-civilian government started to recognise the importance of a strong value chain so beneficiation development became a focus,” noted Kyaw Win.
In 2015, the newly elected government placed emphasis on a human resource-based economy and the development of the local gems and jewellery sector. MGJEA is working closely with a private sector committee to help change the international perception that Myanmar is producing just rough stones.
The association is also trying to establish a world-class gemmological laboratory in 2019 and upgrade the existing Myanmar Gems Training School to a vocational and institute level, disclosed Kyaw Win.
March 2018 marked the 800th founding anniversary of Mogok, also known as Ruby Land. A historic city in northern Myanmar, it is restricted to foreigners. It lies in a valley 50 miles west of the snaking Irrawaddy River, about 3,850 feet above sea level. Mogok is best known for its gemstones, including pigeon’s blood rubies, sapphires, spinels and other gems. Since the ancient times, Burmese rubies have been carried along the Silk Road, with Chinese documents from the Shan Dynasty recording mining activities in Burma (now Myanmar) as early as the 6th century. The first documented evidence of rubies from Mogok dates back to 1597.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC is the home of some of the world’s largest and finest rubies. One of these is the 23.10-carat Carmen Lúcia ruby, which displays a richly saturated hue combined with an exceptional transparency. The stone was mined in Mogok in the 1930s.
Among the people I met was Jordan, who served as our guide and lead convoy driver. He was also the expedition leader’s first mate who kept us safe, well-equipped and well-fed. Many locals still place water pots in front of their houses so thirsty passers-by can stop and have a drink. Such are the qualities of a Mogok local.
For those in the trade, Mogok has become a part of life. Expedition leader and chairman of the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences Kennedy Ho was born in Myanmar. In the book “Mogok, the Valley of Precious Stones,” where he served as executive editor, Ho described his connection with Mogok and its people. “From the early days, when my father set up a small gem trading business in Yangon, to the difficult period of exile experienced by my father – and by us, his children – the people of Mogok have entrusted the rarest and most beautiful gems to us. Their trust has been our salvation on many occasions so much so that Mogok itself is like a member of our family – and a particularly worthy one at that,” he wrote.
The gem markets
For the inhabitants of Mogok, the Htar Pwe or gem market, is a huge part of daily living. It attracts buyers and speculators from the town and around surrounding areas. Traders display their gemstones, offer a starting price and haggle with buyers for a deal. The asking price is normally higher than the market price so bargaining is recommended. Most buyers and sellers are Myanmar nationals since foreigners have limited access to Mogok due to the nation’s policy. When foreigners show up in the markets, they are quickly surrounded by local traders eager to maximise their stay. A large variety of gemstones are traded in the public gem markets of Mogok, including rough and polished rubies, sapphires and spinels, with prices ranging between a few US dollars and over US$2,000. The expensive stones of 3 carats and up such as unheated pigeon’s blood rubies are usually traded indoors.
There are four major gem markets in Mogok. The Mingalar market by the lake in east Mogok is a morning market where sellers sit behind rented spaces to display their gems.
Pan Chan market in east Mogok, also called the umbrella market, opens in the afternoon where buyers rent tables with umbrellas to wait for sellers to bring the goods. The other two busy markets in west Mogok – Aung Thit Lwin (morning market) and Pan Ma (afternoon market) hardly offer tables so business transactions are done standing.
These markets rely on natural daylight to trade stones. An experienced trader knows that daylight in Mogok is more flattering on the gems than in most Chinese cities, for instance, therefore a vibrant coloured ruby might appear darker when viewed elsewhere. It is better to take a colour sample for a more precise comparison.
Since the US lifted the ban on the importation of Burmese rubies in 2016, the Myanmar government has stopped re-issuing mining concession permits, significantly disrupting gemstone production. In May 2019, all mining permits in Mogok will expire. This uncertainty is bound to affect the livelihoods of tens of thousands of miners, lapidaries, traders and other industry stakeholders as well as their families.
This could also result in major jewellers, who buy huge quantities of Mogok gems but need a year in advance to plan marketing campaigns, to possibly rely on other gem sources such as Mozambique for rubies or Sri Lanka and Madagascar for sapphires.
All images by Julius Zheng
About the author
Julius Zheng is a jewellery industry analyst and senior consultant to various important firms and institutes. Actively engaged in industry matters, he has developed various projects that connect China’s diamond and jewellery sectors with international markets. Formerly general manager of Rapaport China, he has over 20 years’ experience in the international diamond and jewellery industry.