Abstract: In early 2000, Calvin, my second son, and I were on a 7 days sojourn to Mogok in Myanmar, the land of rubies and sapphires. This was the place to learn the ruby trade. And the way of life of miners and the people living in this strange land rich in crystals and gemstones.
Calvin and I were in Myanmar, also known as Burma then, in early 2000. Calvin was 18 plus. He had received his Graduate Gemologist (GG) credentials from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York City. So, I reckoned that it’s time to get his feet wet to gain some field experience in the jade and ruby trade.
We were granted a military permit to visit the Stone Tract of Mogok in upper Mandalay, after waiting for 2 weeks in Yangon to get it approved by the Mines Ministry. Mogok was designated a black area.
Mogok, the fabled land of rubies and sapphires, is nestled on a hilltop with elevation of about 1,170 meters at latitude about 23o N. The climate is fairly temperate. The cool season is from November to February. Night time temperature may drop to below 10oC during these months.
The world’s foremost top and highly prized ruby, known as the pigeon-blood ruby, comes from the mines of the Mogok Stone Tract. Mining records for these fabulous pigeon-blood rubies dates back to the 16th century. Mogok also produces the finest sapphires in the world, comparable to the highly coveted velvety corn-flower blue sapphires from the long depleted mines in Kashmir. Mogok is also an important source for other gemstones such as spinel, aquamarine, peridot, zircon, topaz and other rare gemstones.
In May 2015, Sotheby’s Geneva auction sold an extraordinary ring that broke all previous records. The center gemstone was a 25.59 carat Mogok Burmese ruby set on a platinum ring by Cartier, with ascending diamonds. It was accompanied by a gemlab report from the renown Gubelin Gem Lab in Switzerland verifying that the ruby was of Burmese origin with “pigeon-blood” color and no indication of heat treatment. That ring was auctioned off for US$30,335,698.
In early 2000, few foreigners had ever ventured into Mogok because of severe restriction by the Myanmar military. They were wary of journalists or any international newspaper media going into Mogok who subsequently wrote horror stories on the living and working conditions of the miners and their families.
I had been in-country for several years in the jade trade. I came to know of several officials from the Myanmar Gems Corporation. They gave me a letter of recommendation to visit the mines for academic research work. Calvin and I were professional gemologist.
We were going into the Red Line. The Burmese said that there were only 3 major businesses in upper Burma: the Red Line, the Green Line and the White Line. The Red Line was the ruby business. Jade was the green line. The White Line was the business of processed white powder from the milky sap of the poppy flowers – opium.
The business for the Red Line and Green Line is flourishing, where international demand for the finest rubies and top-grade Imperial jade has grown exponentially year upon year, especially with the new money bags and the nouveau riche mainland Chinese. The White Line growing of poppies has somewhat diminished when Khun Sa, the Opium King of the Golden Triangle, surrendered to the Myanmar authorities in early 1996. While Khun Sa laid down his arms and most of his rebels surrendered, other Burmese and Thai warlords were quick to fill the void. Although Afghanistan is still the top grower of poppy in the world, the Golden Triangle is not very far behind. The DEA of USA once remarked that heroin from the Golden Triangle was the best in the business with a 90% purity.
The locals said that the road to Mogok had 99 twists and turns. It was about 200 km from Mandalay. We travelled in an SUV and a Hiace minivan with 2 plain cloths armed military men riding shotgun.
The ride was bumpy. We traversed uneven roads, various sharp bends, pot holes, narrow and steep slopes where a slip by the driver would land us far downhill, crossed a shallow river stream and a few wooden bridges. As our cars grinded along the gravel road, our SUV and the Hiace would leave a booming wake of fine yellow dust clouds behind.
I had often said to Calvin, “Do not be an arm-chair gemologist, locked up in an office of gem lab equipment. Go to the mines to see first-hand the upstream mining activities. You may not travel in comfort nor stay in a decent hotel, but the journey is worth a life’s time experience.”
This trip cost me an arm and a leg for the three of us, including my long time Burmese lady staff. To us as gemologist, going to the fabled ruby land of Mogok was like going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Precious and Rare Gemstones.
We arrived at Mogok in the late evening after traveling on the road for over 8 hours.
It was a surreal scene for those who stepped foot on Mogok for the first time. The entire landscape was bathed in rich ochre by the oblique rays of the setting sun as the topsoil was of a natural brownish clay earth pigment with varying amount of sand and ferric oxide. The indiscriminate digging and mining on every available inch of land had turned Mogok into a land waste, where the earth’s crust was striped to the barest minimum in search for gemstones.
In Mogok the major business of almost everyone was gemstones, in particular rubies and sapphires. All others were support industries. Even children were in the fray looking for gemstones. A child of 10 years old could easily identify a rough ruby or a rough sapphire just by sighting it.
Everyone had a dream in Mogok. The dream of finding a biggie precious stone, a big enough rough gem stone that might fetch an extraordinary amount of money in the gem market to lift them from poverty or a shot at fame to be rich instantaneously.
These dreams did happen for some very few. A poor man living in a dilapidated house may strike a big rough ruby whilst he was digging a deep hole to construct a latrine. Or he might stumble upon a fabulous rough stone in river streams. However, many came, very few were chosen. Most of them ended up in more poverty than ever, their hands weather-beaten into an arthritic welt of dead skin and burnt reddish blisters.
Perhaps the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.
Here, one could find rich Lao Pan (an honorific term in Chinese meaning boss) mine owners, Burmese business men who owned several lapidaries for gems cutting, shop proprietors selling gems cutting or excavating machinery, jewellers or former well-to-do Nepalese Gurkha gem sellers. The ancestors of these Gurkha gem sellers (pronounced as Ger-Lok-Kah) were the long-lost army of Gurkha mercenaries serving the British Indian Army when Burma was under the British colonial rule for 124 years, whom for generations had taken roots in upper Burma. A lot of them had prospered with the gem trade since the first generation of Gurkhas were stationed in Burma.
On hill slopes one could see masses of small wooden huts with little amenities housing families of workers from the mines. They eked out a living by working at the mines for long hours, or their wives would pan the river streams and beds for gems, often with a baby strung behind their backs.
There was a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. The lower middle class would be those in the civil services, military and police force, small business enterprises, gem cutters, stones sorters, bench workers for Jewelry and other general workers. Still, everyone had a dream of finding that valuable red rough stone one day.
There were also a lot of local migrants coming in from other states seeking their fortune in this fabulous land. They were free to move around as they were Burmese. Usually, they had a friend in Mogok, and Burmese always welcomed them to stay in their house.
Surprisingly, there were no homeless people living in cardboards along the corridors of shop lots or on makeshift shelters on the 5-foot pavement on the street. Everyone had something to do. Everyone had a shelter over his head. Probably, the only person with a begging bowl was the occasional bare-footed Buddhist monk asking for food or alms from passer-by. Most Burmese were generous people and would not hesitate to give when greeted upon by a monk or a nun.
Calvin remarked, “There are no homeless people here. I don’t see anyone sleeping on the street. In New York City, it is a common sight. In Times Square one can find a lot of homeless people living in cardboards under bridges or on sidewalks. And they say, US is an affluent country.”
He continued, “When we were in Cambodia in the mid-90s, I saw a lot of beggars, war wounded civilians hopping on one leg and dirty children crowding our car begging for a dollar when we stopped on a street in Phnom Penh. Here, we have not encountered that at all.”
I had a faraway look as I reminisced about the years of residence and travel in London, New York City, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and a few countries.
“Yes, a lot of Western media is a heap load of hypocrisy. They are arm-chair critics. They indulge in journalistic sensationism so that they get noticed. Several Western journalists and NGOs wrote that child exploitation in these Third World countries is rampant. Instead of working in rice fields, or in a garment factory, or working as a gem cutter, these children should be in school and be educated. They should have breakfast of cereals, orange juice, milk and bread, some of these journalists screamed in their write-ups.
But the reality was, here a poor man working as a manual labour would be happy if he could provide an egg and a small bowl of noodles in the morning to feed his children. These so-called journalists love to impose their narrow bigoted Western views on their readers.”
“If you are a commoner and have a daughter aged 15, you rather she works in a sweatshop garment factory then to walk the street in the sex industry.”
Calvin made many valid observations. He was enthralled by how people lived and worked in a poor Third World country. I talked about my life too in the several years I stayed in Myanmar. He listened in awe as I recounted many tales to him. He was absorbing the sights and sounds of Mogok like a sponge when in contact with water. As the cold mountain wind blew over our faces, he was as excited as me to see Mogok spread in front of us like a picturesque postcard.
On the morrow, we would visit the ruby mines.
Enough for today!
Next Post: My most frightening two hours of eternity when Calvin was ‘trapped’ in an underground ruby mine.