Mogok – Land of Rubies

Land of Rubies:

Mogok, October 2019

Our journey begins Anticipation, the wonder of what would be, the wonder of what I would see. At long last, I was about to experience
the fabled Mogok, Burma (Myanmar), the historic source of world-renowned rubies. Excitement filled the air on the eve of our A.I.G.S. sponsored expedition. We would depart from Bangkok on October 21, 2019, the day after the close of the 21 st International Colored Association Congress. Our group of travellers came from diverse locals, including Australia, England, Austria, Germany, Italy, China,
Thailand the U.S.A. and Canada. Among us were gemstone dealers, geologists, gemologists, bloggers, jewellers and A.I.G.S. representatives. Organized by the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences, (A.I.G.S.), the trip was led by Mr. Kennedy Ho, co-founder of A.I.G.S. and well-known gemologist. Mr. Kennedy was born in Myanmar, then known as Burma, and is well travelled in the Mogok area.

The flight from Bangkok took a short 1 ½ hours to arrive at the Mandalay Airport in Myanmar. Having the afternoon free, we had the chance to visit the city’s newly established gemstone trading centre. Established as a means to promote commerce, the modern indoor centre had a large floor of gemstone and jewelry dealers offering a variety of product including Burmese sapphires and rubies, jadeite and golden pearls. By fortunate circumstance, our visit to the centre was observed by officials of the Myanmar jadeite association who met Mr. Ho and granted us an exclusive visit to the newly established rough jadeite auction preview. It was a thrill to be given a personal guided tour through the immense outdoor market of jadeite boulders. Most boulders only had small polished grooves or open faces that allowed prospective bidders an intriguing sense of the stone’s quality lying with. After enjoying a busy afternoon and checking into our hotel, we were treated to our first sumptuous meal at local Chinese restaurant, a favourite of Mr. Ho’s.

The following morning, we were split into five groups to form a convoy on five mini buses and departed for a seven-hour journey to Mogok which lies nestled in the mountains to the north.

Crossing the lowland plains, our convoy arrived at the foothills and began the long winding route, snaking its way up the mountainous roads towards our destination. Five hours into the trip we arrived at a checkpoint, restricting passage to all without official permission. Specifically, to all “foreigners” without the proper visas. Contrary to experiences I have had in past border crossings, the young border guard official displayed a character unlike one that I would expect, that of curiosity and friendliness. He didn’t seem to mind as we all took turns having our photo taken with him at his desk.

Passing through the checkpoint, our trip continued to slowly wind its way up into the verdant hills before arriving at a mountainous plateau and descending down to the valley below. Our arrival at our destination was made clear by the arching overhead sign reading “Welcome to Ruby Land”. Pulling up to our mountainside hotel, we tumbled out of our vehicles into a climate very different to the hot, humid one we left behind in Mandalay. Here the mountain air was much drier and the temperature comfortable, with average temperatures of 72 to 76F degrees during the day. Night-time temperatures would drop to the high sixties. The temperature shifts would allow for the formation of early morning fog and clouds, which drifted across the mountain tops and into the valleys below. Even though daytime temperatures were not overbearing, the sun shone high in the sky resulting in a UV index over 10. Our group resorted to sporting red umbrellas, which fashionably matched our bright red AIGS t-shirts making us stand out like beacons in the gemstone markets.

A Brief History of Mining in Mogok

History shows us that mining is an expensive, risky business and mining in Mogok is no exception. The early records of rubies being mined in the area date back to before the 6 th century AD. The kings of the past were shown to be wearing robes decorated with rubies from what was then known as the Kingdom of Ava.

With the expansion of the British Empire into the Far East, it wasn’t long before a British task force was organized to lay claim to the rich gem producing area around Mogok. Through various commercial arrangements, British and French entrepreneurs gained the mining licences to start mechanized mining. The most successful company, Burma Ruby Mines Ltd., carried out mining operations up to the its liquidation in 1925. Small scale mining continued through 1962, when the Burmese government was overthrown by a military coup and a new era of authoritarian
governance began. The military government banned all mining and gemstone exploration in 1969 and then nationalized all gemstones mines in the country. Mechanized mining operations soon fell into disrepair due to ineptitude and corruption. The government sought to correct the problem by making it illegal for anyone to be in possession of any rough gemstones and any unmounted cut gemstones. As a result, the black market flourished. With porous borders flanking Myanmar, the black market of Mogok’s gemstones continued to supply gem dealers, with most gemstones making their way to cutting centres such as Bangkok.

During the 1970’s the government realized that it was losing significant revenues due to the black market. As a result, it permitted the formation of limited joint private-government mining partnerships. This resulted in the expansion of mining operations in the area. However with the high taxes placed on the sale of resulting gemstone finds, the black market for gemstones continued, as it does to this day. With the economic interference the military government has demonstrated in the past, it was not surprising to hear from A.I.G.S. this past summer that all official mines in Mogok had been recently closed.

For reasons unknown to the author, existing mining licences were not being renewed. As such, the prospect for a successful Mogok mine visit seemed to be in jeopardy. I was dubious as to whether I should attend the tour as the schedule had been changed from mine tour to cultural tour. All this changed however after Mr. Kennedy Ho made an exploratory trip to the region this past July and found that in fact more mining was being done than ever. Yes, the large licenced mining operations had all been shut down, however the void was being filled by individual miners and families, the citizens of Mogok, the people that we came to meet on our trip.

Mining and Market Tour

With large mechanized mining no longer in production, the former mining operations sites have now been replaced with artisanal mining operations. Whole families are setting to work in the open pit mines. With plenty of rainfall in the area, the many streams that criss-cross the area enable the miners to wash the gravel in various sized hand-held sieves. In some mines the stream water is diverted to mechanically process the gem gravel more efficiently.

In addition to the surface exposed gem gravel, a gem bearing alluvial layer can be found lying several hundred feet below the surface. Tunnelling down to this layer is the most common form of mining in the areas that we visited. Upon arrival at our first mine, we were surprised to see the many green coloured tarps dotting the valley floor. The tarps offered the miners cover from the sun and rain for their individual mining shaft. The mine resembled a giant gopher field. To the uninitiated eye the area looked like it was in a state of chaos.

Without governance, mining appeared to be a case of every man for himself. Our guide’s words was often interrupted by the muffled “oomph” sound of dynamite blasts, emanating from the mining shafts below. This helter skelter form of mining was very dangerous. Deep vertical shafts were hand dug to depths below, often simply reinforced with wood and foliage to prevent collapse. Once the gem bearing layer is found, horizontal tunnels are then dug to extract the gem bearing gravel. Cave-ins were not uncommon and we were informed of the unfortunate fate of a local miner who died recently in one of the shafts.

Rudimentary but efficient means are employed to extract the material. I was especially impressed by the miners use of modified motorcycles, bolted above each mine shaft, providing the means to winch the pails or cloth bags of gem bearing rock to the surface. The mixed soil and rock are then either dry sorted on metal trays or washed and separated when a local water supply was available. Artisanal mining was a family affair, generally employing the men to do the heavy lifting, tunnelling and digging while the women took care of sorting and local trading. The miner’s children often joined in, although play seemed to be more on their mind than any hard work.


The Gem Market

Traditionally, only the women working the Mogok mine tailings were granted permission by the mining company to legally keep and therefore sell their gems. This tradition, along with what seems to be women’s natural talent for bargaining appears to have placed them firmly in charge of selling the current mining production. It became a common site for us to see colourfully dressed women vendors sitting along our path or in the market, a polished brass tray balanced on their lap, spread with shiny red gemmy crystals of ruby and spinel.

Our tour included visits to three main gemstone market places, differentiated by the time of day and the style of business transaction. All markets were held daily in central Mogok. Our first was to the morning market, where buyers can peruse what the many female vendors have for sale. Arriving there in the early morning, I was surprised to see how vibrant the marketplace was. The open canopy market was made up of four lengthy aisles of tables. Shoppers crowded the aisles as they eyed the cut and uncut gemstones. Haggling with vendors was a common sight. The atmosphere was intense!

The second market visit was to one held in the afternoons. This market differed from the morning one in that buyers rent small tables and “announce” what they are looking for. Sellers then roam the market, booking time at the appropriate tables to show their wares. I had the opportunity to sit in on several transactions and found this marketplace was better designed for more private and substantial purchases than the morning market. Our final gem market visit was to the street market held in the early evening. This market was certainly the most chaotic and most fun. Like a street carnival, we were jostled between participants, from one seller to another, politely declining the many hands holding stones to our faces.

The Return to Mandalay

Our tour had come to an end. Early Monday morning we would witness the sunrise over Mogok one last time before departing. With the six hour bus ride lying ahead in order to catch our afternoon flight to Bangkok, I had plenty of time to reflect on my experience of the past four days. Getting to know a country in four days is impossible, however I had learned much about Myanmar in this short time. My apprehension for crossing the border into a military ruled state had given away to a relaxed confidence. In fact, except for the check point into Mogok, we never witnessed any authoritarian presence. Although different in many ways, Myanmar has numerous comforts that we are used to at home. The frequent sighting of English in Mandalay signage and business names made it familiar and reminded me that Myanmar (Burma) was once part of the British Empire along with neighbouring India.

Contemplating the current discussion within our industry around sustainable mining practices, the benefits of artisanal mining versus industrial mechanized mining, as well as negative aspects such as child labour and corruption, my visit to Mogok has given me new insights into the complexities of sourcing gemstones. By seeing the miners working together in peace, sharing with us their welcoming smiles, my trip to Mogok helped me to appreciate how important the gemstone industry is in providing a livelihood to so many people. My gratitude to Mr. Kennedy Ho and The Asian Institute of Gemmological Sciences.