MYANMAR has long
been known as the best source for lustrous rubies in the
world, gemstones whose beauty is rivaled only by the
emeralds produced by the mines of Colombia.
During the Bagan (Pagan) Dynasty (1044 to 1287 CE) rubies
were worn by Myanmar royalty. Some of the royal rubies were
so valuable that a Chinese emperor is said to have offered a
city in his own country in exchange for one of the prized
Rubies were used in ceremonies and to adorn royal regalia,
and the choicest items mined were reserved for the court.
Some were sold to India and the Middle East, but many of the
finest rubies and other gemstones were dedicated to the
Myanmar people follow Theravada Buddhism, which preaches the
virtues of humility and living a simple life without
ostentation. The gems were therefore not used for personal
adornment but were encased in the htarpanar-taik, or relic
chambers of pagodas and stupas. The search for these riches
was one reason why more than 1000 pagodas were desecrated
and destroyed by British troops at the end of the Third
Anglo- Burmese War.
European traders first visited Myanmar around 1400 CE with
the pr4nary aim of engaging in the spice trade. But some
early travelers -such as Nicola di Conti, Ludovico di
Varthema, Hieronimo de Santo Stephano and Caesar Fredericke
-re- ported on the profusion and quality of rubies and other
gemstones worn by Myanmar royalty, and this aroused the
interest of the West.
By the 17th century Jean-Bapiste Tavernier, a trader inl
precious stones, had sold Myanmar rubies to King Louis XIV
and Cardinal Mazarin. Napoleon Bonaparte himself is said to
have possessed a Mogok ruby.
During the reign of King Pindale (1648-1661) a ruby of
surpassing quality was discovered by a villager named Nga
Mauk. This was presented to the king and became the finest
gem in his possession. The stone weighed 80 carats when cut
and became known as the Nga Mauk Ruby.
At the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War, the recently
deposed King Thibaw was persuaded to entrust the crown
jewels and the Nga Mauk ruby to a Colonel Sladen for
Later, when Thibaw asked for the return of the ruby, he was
told that Sladen had returned to England. The British
authorities finally told Thibaw that Sladen had died in 1910
and that there was no record of his handing over any ruby of
quality to the government.
Many Myanmar believe to this day that Thibaw was given the
runaround and was the victim of deceit in high places. No
trace of the Nga Mauk ruby has surfaced since.
After the British annexed Myanmar, international interest
grew in the ruby mines at Mogok, known to be the richest in
the world. There was fierce competition to acquire mining
concessions. In 1889 a company called Burma Ruby Mines Ltd
won a lease to work the mines. However, due to their
reliance on heavy equipment and machinery the venture failed
and the company went into voluntary liquidation in 1934.
Another company, Ruby Mines Ltd, took over. When the
Japanese invaded Myanmar the managing director and staff
fled to India.
Myanmar regained independence after World War II. Not much
was accomplished in gem mining and the gem industry was
nationalised in 1962.
When the State Law and Order Restoration Council took over
the reins of government in 1988 it repealed the old laws,
adopted a free market policy and threw open the doors to
private enterprise and direct foreign investment.
The Ministry of Mines set up a new agency called the Myanma
Gems Enterprise to oversee the changeover. Under the
enterprise the gemstone industry was liberalised, joint
venture agreements were signed between the government and
ethnic groups inhabiting the gem-bearing areas, and private
companies were allowed to import machinery and equipment
without paying customs duty.
These measures led to an increase in the number of local gem
companies. In 1995224 new licenses were issued, boosting the
exploration and production of gemstones and heavily
fractured Mong Hsu rough rubies.
Mong Hsu located in Shan State, about 150 miles east and
slightly to the south of Mogok. The mine there was worked in
the 19th century, but since the rubies obtained were usually
opaque and could not be easily faceted, work in the area was
The discovery by the Thais that Mong Hsu rough rubies, when
subjected to intense heat, take on the colour of Mogok
rubies changed all that. Soon monstrous quantities of rough
rubies from the region were being sold at gem auctions. In
March 2002, more than five million carats of Mong Hsu rough
rubies were purchased, while sales of genuine Mogok rubies
Tai gemstone "cook ers" are constantly experimenting with
heat treatments to enhance the quality of rough stones. They
have already achieved considerable success and flooded the
market with all kinds of heat-treated stones.
The Myanmar government has taken pains to assure potential
buyers that all the rubies and sapphires sold at the Myanma
Gems Enterprise auctions and Union of Myanmar Economic
Holdings Ltd auctions are natural and untreated, and that
the Mong Hsu rough rubies offered for sale are untreated
unless otherwise stated.
The question of provenance or place of origin has lately
come to the fore with regard to rubies. Myanmar rubies are
the finest in the world, against which all others are
measured, and to be able to say that a particular stone
comes from Myanmar enhances its value by 10 to 20 per cent
over those of similar quality from other sources.
Formerly there was no surefire method of proving provenance,
the method being chancy and based on anecdotal evidence.
However, a new technique using D N A fingerprinting has been
The water in which emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other
precious gems were crystallised millions of years ago varied
widely from area to area in the presence and quantity of
certain minerals. The DNA process takes a small sample of
the surface of the stone, vaporizes it and measures the
oxygen isotope ratio, which can be used determine with
certainly from which mine a given gemstone came.
Another heartening development is that many geologists now
believe that the Mogok Stone Tract may be larger than
formerly believed, being 10 to 25 miles wide and extending
from Putao in Kachin State in the far north to Moattama in
Mon State nearly 1200 kilometres of the south.