The Burmese have been mining precious stones for over a thousand years. Myanmar is home to the most beautiful rubies in the world. The “Pigeon’s Blood” rubies are a rich red colour, with exceptional clarity. Natural and rare, Burmese rubies are one of the most expensive gemstones per carat in the world. Alongside these famous rubies, Myanmar also produces high quality sapphires, spinel, garnet, topaz, amethyst, peridot, moonstone and other precious stones.
Burmese rubies and other gems are mined primarily in the Valley of Rubies in north-west of Mandalay, central Myanmar. The small town of Mogok is right in the heart of the Valley of Rubies. As the knowledge and wealth of Myanmar’s precious stones spread, Mogok and the Valley of Rubies became a highly desired and contested region. From the Burmese kings of old to the British colonialists and the previous military government, Myanmar’s gemstones have been fought over and jealously guarded, even from their own people.
By the 16th century, the Burmese Monarch had annexed the district from the Shan state to which it belonged, placing it under his direct control in what is now Mandalay Division in modern Myanmar. Subsequently, he declared that all mined stones of value belonged to the ruling power, with harsh punishments and even death dealt to those caught taking the stones.
In 1885, the British government annexed upper Myanmar ensuring a steady stream of Burmese gems back to England. With independence in 1948, control of Burmese mines and gemstones returned to the ruling government. By 1969, the gemstone trade was nationalised with no private exploration or trade permitted. Under the previous military dictatorship, Mogok became a forbidden area tightly controlled by the regime.
During this time there were a number of reports of poor working conditions and human rights abuses in military controlled mines. Rubies, along with jade, were also seen as a key source of revenue for the military government resulting in the United States imposing an embargo on the importation of Burmese rubies as part of a broader program of sanctions against the regime. As a result, many stones were illegally smuggled out of Myanmar, including via land borders with Thailand and China, and then sold on the international market.
The restrictions on trade and access to Mogok have recently begun to be reversed. This is part of the political and economic reform process which began in 2010, culminating in the success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in the 2015 elections. Smaller local and non-military affiliated businesses are now mining in Mogok, and there is greater focus on improving mining conditions and the environmental impact. On 7 October 2016, the United States removed all remaining sanctions, including those against Myanmar rubies.
There is also a growing awareness of the need to “add value” to Myanmar’s gems domestically, as opposed to wholesale export and illegal gem smuggling. Value adding builds local skills, jobs and business and also contributes to government revenue for vital and neglected services in Myanmar, including basic health care and education. Mia Ruby strongly supports this approach; as such we only source gems from local traders and 100% of our production is in Myanmar. Our sterling silver products, for example, are produced through the She-Smith program, which trains women as silver and goldsmiths, an area traditionally off-limits to Burmese women.
Rubies come from a mineral called corundum, which also produces sapphires. Pure corundum is colourless; rubies get their intense, blood red pigment from a trace element called chromium. Only the red corundum stones are called rubies.
The word “ruby” comes from the Latin rubens (red); in Sanskrit it is ratnaraj which means “king of stones”. Of the “4 C’s” - colour, clarity, cut and carat, it is colour that is the most valued in rubies. The highest quality rubies are a vivid deep red with a fluorescent glow. This is due to the amount of chromium in the gem.
Myanmar rubies are the best in the world for their near perfect “pigeon’s blood” purple-red colouring, and command the highest prices. The light inclusions within the stones means that they can shine in any environment.
Ruby is the birthstone of July and the 40th anniversary gemstone.
The Myanmar sapphire is often overshadowed by its brilliant corundum cousin, the ruby. Yet it is a stunning gem in its own right, and Mogok produces some of the world’s most famous sapphires. While there are fewer sapphires found here, they are often larger stones.
Sapphire is the name given to all coloured corundum stones, except red (rubies), which range in colour from blue and yellow to pink and white. Mogok sapphires are typically shades of blue, purple, light red or pink. As well, “star sapphires” are not uncommon, whereby a natural star-like needlepoint pattern crisscrosses the stones.
Sapphires have long been favourites with royalty, giving rise to the name “royal blue”. The most valued sapphires are those of a deep velvety blue with intense colour saturation. The other coveted sapphire is the padparadscha, which is likened in colour to a pink sunset.
Sapphire is the birthstone of September and the 5th anniversary gemstone.
Spinel is a little known gem that until recently was mistaken for ruby. Like ruby and sapphire, spinel is found in marble deposits and has similar hardness and durability. Its colour ranges from red, pink, and orange to purple, violet and blue-green. Colour variations are caused by different trace elements: chromium creates red and pink; iron results in violet and blue; chromium and iron together create orange and purple; and cobalt produces a vivid blue (extremely rare).
Modern testing methods in the 20th century have brought spinel to light; many world-famous “rubies”, including the British Crown Jewels, have now been reclassified as spinel.
Spinel today is increasing in popularity among jewellers and consumers alike, however supplies are dwindling and this versatile and beautiful gem is becoming increasingly rare.
Spinel is now the birthstone of August and the 22nd anniversary gemstone.