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Articles from GEMSTONES - LOOSE (254 Articles)

Mogok stone tract market
Mogok stone tract market

Burmese rubies: A brief stay in heaven

The path down Myanmar’s infamous Mogok Stone Tract is perilous but the promise of riches continues to attract intrepid gemstone explorers. E. Billie Hughes visits the ruby capital.

Early each morning Saw Sanda Soe would begin her long walk to school. If it had rained the night before, others would join her, not to go to school but to scan the ground ahead. Saw Sanda Soe’s village was special. It lay at the entrance of Myanmar’s Mogok Stone Tract, home to the world’s finest rubies, and each villager secretly hoped the previous night’s rain had washed a bit of treasure across their path.

Rubies from the Mogok Stone Tract are the stuff of legend and for good reason: more fine rubies have been clawed from the soil in this land than any other place on the planet.

The Shan originally settled the area in the 6th century AD but in 1597 the King of Burma took over the mines from the Shan, ordering that all rubies above a certain size and/or value be turned over to him, yet not everything went back to the king.

A woman sorts stones in Mogok’s market
A woman sorts stones in Mogok’s market

Enterprising miners would break larger stones into smaller pieces that could be kept and sold.

The British took control of the area in 1886 and London jeweller Edwin Streeter and N. M. Rothschild and the Exploration Co won the tender and leased the land to the Burma Ruby Mines.

The company brought in modern mining equipment, improved infrastructure and built roads, drainage tunnels and washing plants. In fact, the company discovered ruby not just in the mines but also under the town of Mogok itself so the British simply moved the town.

To facilitate this, the British company compensated those living on the land. Hoping to minimise costs, they also capped the price of compensation to discourage residents from building houses worth more than the cap.

Even after moving the town, the company faced obstacles. As with the Burmese kings before them, the British suffered losses due to theft and were also hampered by flooding. Then the global marketplace was hurt by the introduction of synthetic ruby in the early 20th century.

Burma Ruby Mines surrendered their lease in 1931 and mining reverted back to traditional methods. After more than three decades, the British had learned an important lesson: fine rubies are rare indeed.

In 1962, political upheaval shook Mogok as the Burmese military took control of the government. Foreigners were banned from visiting the mines and the junta nationalised the mining industry.

Off the beaten track
The Mogok Stone Tract is located in the Kathe District of Upper Burma, 200 km northeast of Mandalay.

Setting out to this remote area has never been easy. In the 19th century it was considered almost inaccessible and one had to journey by steamer and pony to enter the valley. Even after roads were built, four-wheel drive was a necessity due to poor conditions.

A kanasé miner at in Byae, Mogok
A kanasé miner at in Byae, Mogok

Early accounts from British travellers also describe gangs of dacoits (bandits) that would intercept the river steamers and the thick jungle surrounding the area was infested with disease-carrying insects and poisonous plants. If that’s not enough, early visitors were deterred further by tales that malevolent sprits guarded the region and its rubies.

Even now, the Burmese believe that some people become guardians of the treasures after death.

Today, the road conditions have improved. While some remote mines can still only be reached by four-wheel drive, access has improved considerably.

From mine to market
In former times, most mines in Mogok consisted of round (twinlon) or square (lebin) pits sunk into the soil in search of gemstone-bearing gravel known as byon. These simple pits are rarely seen today as most mining now uses open-cast and quarrying methods.

The hmyadwin is a type of open-pit mine where water is brought via channels to wash gravel on the hillside. In contrast to the twinlon, the hmyadwin is usually used during the rainy season because it requires a greater amount of water. When water is aimed at the hill, the lighter materials will float and be carried away while the heavier minerals, including gemstones, will remain where they can then be washed.

Another mining method involves miners searching the underground limestone caverns known as lu-dwin. These can be small crevices or deep caves spanning hundreds of metres and contain some of the richest byon in the Stone Tract; however, it can be treacherous. Miners must crawl through cramped spaces and risk cave-ins to retrieve the byon. This is the most dangerous type of mining, as the rocks are extremely wet and slippery. But it is also the most rewarding, for when a pocket of byon is found, it can hold an extremely high concentration of gemstones.

Quarrying is common today and involves miners tunnelling directly into the mother rock.

Explosives are often employed but the method is fraught with problems as blasting can damage the gemstones. As alluvial deposits are exhausted, this method has become more and more prevalent.

After gemstones are recovered, some are sold as rough while others are cut and polished first.

Quarrying is a common method used today
Quarrying is a common method used today

There are several markets at different times and locations, and vendors move from market to market throughout the day.

Many vendors are actually descendants of the Nepalese Gurkhas that the British brought in to guard the mines.

The volume of goods can become overwhelming as sellers jostle to show their wares; it can be better to sit in a teashop or, better yet, a dealer’s office and allow dealers to show gemstones one by one. This way the buyer can concentrate on each gemstone or parcel.

Markets run rain or shine. On a drizzly day, a row of umbrellas will line the streets to cover displays. Often gemstones will be set out on brass trays. Originally this was done because the yellow background enhances the red tones in ruby and spinel but over time the custom became so ingrained that now even buyers go to the market with brass tray in hand.

Mogok’s open markets feature a range of items including other corundum, spinel, quartz, garnet and a myriad of other gemstones, both rough and cut. As with most markets, the vast majority is not worth buying – finer goods are almost always sold behind closed doors – and yet Mogok’s outdoor gemstone markets are some of the Stone Tract’s most colourful and interesting.

Pondering tomorrow
In today’s Myanmar, to say there is a new wind blowing is a vast understatement. No one could have predicted what has occurred in the past two years. One such sign is the reopening of the Mogok area to foreigners. Closed for as many as 40 of the past 50 years, the door to this magical land has once again been unlocked.

As mining continues, fewer gemstones remain. There is little truly fine material and better pieces go straight to Yangon or abroad.

The depletion of gemstone resources has pushed mine owners to rely more upon mechanisation.

In some mines, this is supported with the help of foreign investment; however, such mining methods are controversial. In an act of protest that would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago, local residents forced the government to temporarily halt mining at one site, voicing concerns that unregulated mechanised mining would endanger the area’s water supply and overall environment.

Whether such bans can be sustained is hard to predict. Mine owners argue that without mechanisation, mining will be uneconomical. At Myanmar’s jadeite mines and western China’s nephrite mines, uncontrolled mechanised mining has destroyed both the environment and what is obviously a non-renewable resource.

Regulations are needed that can protect both the environment and traditional mining customs, while still allowing locals to make a living. This does not have to mean a halt to all mechanised mining but could be a set of guidelines to ensure that gemstones will be found for decades and centuries to come. Mechanised mining has long been banned in Sri Lanka and yet their gemstone industry thrives. Would this not be a worthy model to consider?

A mechanised open-cast mine
A mechanised open-cast mine

Although mining methods have become more technologically dependent, superstitions remain.

Saw Sanda Soe, daughter of mine owner Dr Saw Naung U, described to me a miner who had visions about hunting for gemstones. “Each time he had one of these dreams, he would tell my father that the mine’s spirit guardians are asking for donations. After every offering, we would find stones.”

Offerings are not limited to underground angels. Mogok’s temples are filled with rubies, spinels, sapphires and pearls, all left as donations to the deities. Indeed, the pagodas that dot the landscape are also built from charity.

Benevolence also extends to the mortal world. An important Mogok custom is that of kanasé, a centuries-old tradition that allows anyone to search the tailings of a mine and keep what they find. Nowadays it is mainly women and children who continue the practice. Few gemstones of great size or value are found yet this custom gives common people hope – the dream of striking it rich.

Our group’s ascent from Mandalay to Mogok mirrored some of the experiences of earlier travellers to the Stone Tract. No, we did not have to take a steamer up river or fend off leopards and dacoits but winding our way up curving roads into the dense jungles, we too experienced the wonder of discovery.

As we neared our goal, my father told me to expect something “just like Disneyland”. Sure, I thought, until we passed under a red arch that proclaimed “Welcome to Rubyland”. Off in the distance stood a stupa on a marble hill, looking uncannily like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. At that moment, I started to believe I really was entering one of the world’s most magical places.

The next day we set off for the mines. It was raining lightly, as it would do every day we were there. Making our way down the muddy dirt trail was tedious. It was not so much the rain that deterred us but other obstacles. Every few metres someone ahead would stop and then stoop for a closer look. Soon I was doing the same. As I walked along the path, a flash of pink winked from the mud.

Bending down, I was delighted to discover a small crystal. It was a nattwe, a spirit-polished piece of frozen light. By now, our progress along the jungle slope had slowed to a crawl, each of us scanning the ground ahead, bowing in the hopes that our humility might impress the gods just enough to be rewarded with a few fragments of treasure. No, we were not off to school like Saw Sanda Soe had been; we were entering Myanmar’s Mogok Stone Tract, and we were in heaven. 

This article originally appeared in coloured gemstones and jewellery magazine InColor. It has been reprinted here with full permission. E. Billie Hughes is a recent FGA graduate and young gemmologist.

Map of upper Burma and the Mogok Stone Tract
Map of upper Burma and the Mogok Stone Tract

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