“More secret than Mecca and harder to access than Lhasa, there is, in the heart of the Burmese jungle, a small unknown city, whose fabulous resources have yet ruled over people for centuries: It is Mogok, the citadel of ruby.”
The mythical city of Mogok, 200 kilometres (126 miles) north of Mandalay, has excited many imaginations since French writer and traveller Joseph Kessel’s adventure novel Mogok, the Valley of Rubies was first published in 1955. It hit the headlines in May when the 25.59 carat ko-thwe (pigeon-blood) Sunrise ruby found in the area was sold for a world-record US$30.33 million at auction in Geneva, proving – if evidence were needed – that the market for precious stones is still booming.
Today, a visit to Mogok guarantees a captivating experience in what is still a largely unexplored region of the country.
The narrow twisting road that leads to the city snakes through densely forested hills and up into the clouds. Mogok’s scenic valley is surrounded by golden pagoda spires sat atop lush green peaks. The mist around the valley lends an air of mystery which is immediately striking to visitors. Jesuit missionary Giuseppe di Amato, the first European to live in the area from 1784 until he died, wrote, “It is surrounded by nine mountains. The soil is uneven and full of marshes, which form seventeen small lakes…It is this soil which is so rich in mineral treasures.”
Mogok, whose rubies are exceptional in terms of both quantity and quality, is first the result of an extraordinary global geological process, in which the collision of tectonic plates liberated essential substances for the formation of rubies – notably chromium. But with temperate climates year-round, the twelve villages that make up the city – consisting of one-storey wooden houses and shops around a lake that was once a ruby mine – also make for a pleasant place to visit.
Gems are displayed on small bronze plates at the Mogok gems market.Photos: Amaury LorinGems are displayed on small bronze plates at the Mogok gems market.Photos: Amaury Lorin
The majority of Mogok’s population, which according to the 2014 census now totals around 166,000, is dependent on the ruby industry. For the miners, many of whom are descendents of Nepalese Gurkhas, life is tough. The hope of one day unearthing a giant gemstone – and the vast riches that come with it – keeps them going, though employment opportunities in the region are rapidly declining.
“Miners earn about US$100 to $200 monthly on average, plus commission if they are lucky enough to find the finest gemstones,” said Jordan, a local miner whose father also worked on the mines. But with licensing fees, taxes and operational expenses – most notably the price of oil – increasing, salaries are being cut back, forcing many young people to leave Mogok in search of better jobs elsewhere.
Sellers, mainly women, line the Mogok gem market.Photo: StaffSellers, mainly women, line the Mogok gem market.Photo: Staff
Every day, hordes of traders rush to the busy gem market in the middle of town. A closed world until recently, the market still operates the way it has done for centuries. The friendly women who come here to sell their wares – women, it is believed, are more patient than men for this job – proudly display their gemstones on small bronze plates or sheets of paper. It’s easy to marvel at the intense colors of the brilliant gemstones. The highest-quality gemstones don’t appear at the market, of course, but are sent directly to Bangkok or Hong Kong instead.
Window-shoppers are advised to peruse judiciously: As soon as one shows interest in a gemstone, word quickly spreads between sellers. Sellers sit surrounded by calculating machines, scales and bundles of banknotes: Negotiations here proceed slowly, like a long game requiring patience, but always with a smile. Nearby, a street of old-style houses is home to a dozen family workshops where gem cutters and polishers are hard at work.
Natural and unenhanced rubies, the national Myanmar gemstone, are among the rarest, and therefore most valuable, of all gemstones today. Stones are examined and certified by qualified gemologists, who use several criteria to determine value, including weight (1 carat equals 200 milligrams), brilliance (the amount of light that reflects back to the eye), cut, hue, transparency and tone.
Some rubies can be worth more than diamonds. Certainly, their scarcity endows them with a greater market value. More than just a purchase, rubies are considered to be a sound financial investment, in the same way that gold and silver are. Reputable dealers and wholesalers, who mine or cut the stones themselves without using treatments, are the safest option.
Rubies are not, however, the only gems that can be found in Mogok: Sapphires, spinels, peridots, lapis lazuli, moonstones, topaz and amethysts, to name just a few, complete the diversity of gems and semi-precious stones peppering the area – among the choicest stones in the world, with the exception of emeralds.
The area has been mined by hand since the British colonial era. The British, knowing the interest of the French in Mogok and Upper Burma, feared that their ancestral rivals would take over the region and control access to China. Backed by a consortium of London-based gem merchants, they successfully planned an invasion of Burma with one of its main objectives being control of Mogok and its ruby mines. After three Anglo-Burmese wars (1824-1886), the Burma Ruby Mines Company, created in 1889 in London, was the exclusive operator in Mogok’s ruby industry for four decades until 1931. This fact partly explains the international notoriety of Mogok today. Yet the relationships between the British and the Burmese in Mogok reflected the colonial context of the time: The British notably forced the Burmese miners to wear heavy iron helmets to prevent them from stealing the gemstones by swallowing them.
Myanmar’s military rulers in the past depended on the sale of precious stones to fund their regime. Gem trading centres were licensed to open with 15 percent tax paid to the government. The New Gemstone Law enacted in 1995 allowed local entrepreneurs to mine, produce, transport, and sell gemstones and manufactured jewellery in Myanmar and abroad, and since 2000, the government has undertaken joint ventures with private companies in the mining of gems on a profit sharing basis.
Myanmar’s flourishing ruby industry today supplies over 80pc of world demand. India, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Greenland, Tajikistan, Madagascar and Tanzania are also known for their fine-quality rubies, though none of the mines in these countries have been able to rival the inimitable colour of Mogok’s rubies, which boast a fluorescent red shade, often with veins of light pink. And colour is king in the market: A change in international buyers’ taste toward coloured gemstones was reflected in the unprecedented high prices at major auction houses earlier this year. For this reason, Myanmar – known around the world as “Ruby Land”– is sure to continue being the most reliable resource of unequalled quality rubies in the world for many decades to come.
Deposits of rubies in Mogok are said to be thinning today, and the number of fine quality stones, once abundant, is said to be declining. But the potential of the Mogok valley remains enormous, despite growing concerns about environmental impacts on the region. The greatest challenge in the coming years will be ensuring the people of Mogok are able to earn a living from the ruby industry in a sustainable way, as Chinese influence in the region becomes noticeably stronger.
Previously off-limits to foreigners, Mogok opened to tourism at the end of 2013. Visitors require a non-extendable permit from the government – which takes around three weeks to obtain (and can be refused for any arbitrary reason) – a licensed guide and an advance booking at a hotel to visit the area. Ananda Travel in Yangon can help with arranging travel to Mogok (www.anandatravel.com).
Mogok is a scenic, five-to-seven-hour drive from Mandalay by bus or share-taxi.
Where to stay
The charmless state-owned Mogok Hotel, built in the 1990s, is approved for foreigners. Located in the heart of the city near the lake, it offers basic double rooms for $40 per night. Another option is the Golden Butterfly Hotel, which offers pleasant views over the valley.
Source: Myanmar Times