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Mogok – the valley of rubies

Mogok valley

Mogok consists of a collection of gemstone producing areas in Burma (Myanmar), sometimes referred to as the “Valley of Rubies,” a name immortalised by the book Mogok, the Valley of Rubies, authored by Joseph Kessel and Stella Rodway. For many years travel to Myanmar has been severely restricted by the ruling regime in a country with a turbulent history of dictatorship and stratocratic military rule. However more recently the once closed state has begun a rapprochement with the outside world and western nations in particular, which has given us a new insight into this gem rich region. Fine quality Burmese rubies set the benchmark for ruby output worldwide, especially those with the deep red hue known as “pigeon’s blood.” The Mogok area itself borders the Shan State and contains a number of different cultural groups, including the Lissu, Shan, Burmese and Gurkhas of Nepalese descent. Most of the local inhabitants are deeply religious and almost 90% are practising Buddhists, as a result of this the region is awash with temples and pagodas and their ever present barefooted monks. One of the most fascinating landmarks in this region is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a temple covered in gold, topped with thousands of gemstones, including at its apex a 76 carat diamond. Mandalay is the second city of Burma, the last royal capital and the commercial centre of Upper Burma. It contains a vibrant jade market, where vendors trade rough jadeite and related jewellery pieces to local and foreign dealers as well as the recent influx of tourists.

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(Swedagon Pagoda)

Mogok can be reached from the regional capital, Mandalay, by way of a 200 KM long road in approximately 4 hours. Contrary to popular belief, the renowned gem producing region known as the Mogok Stone Tract actually comprises several small valleys and their associated towns, notably Mogok itself and Kyatpyin, and also the villages of Bernardymo, Chaung Gyi and Kyauk Pya. Mogok is the largest of these settlements and it is home to just over 300,000 people, whilst Kyatpyin houses approximately 250,000. In addition to ruby, sapphire and spinel are also mined, as well as smaller quantities of apatite, scapolite, moonstone, zircon, garnet, iolite and amethyst. Some very rare stones are also found here, including painite, hibbonite and podretteite and peridot is mined in very small quantities at Pyaung Guang. According to local Mogok legend, around 2,000 years ago a serpent laid three eggs, the first of which hatched the King of Bagan, the second an Emperor of China and the third the ruby mines of Mogok. Historical texts linking rubies and Burma date back as far as the 6th century AD, in the reign of the Shan Dynasty. The King of Burma conquered the ruby mines of Mogok from the Shan in 1597 and decreed that all stones over as certain size must be ceded directly to him. For this reason it is said that a large number of sizeable stones were broken up around this time to avoid having to pay the ‘tax.’

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(A painting depicting one of the first European encounters with the Nga Mauk ruby)

One such example is that of the legend of Daw Nan Kyi, in which a miner by the name of Nga Mauk found a huge ruby, which he cut in half and gave one half to the king in return for a handsome reward. He sold the remaining half to a Chinese merchant, who unfortunately later gifted his half to the king in return for royal protection. The king realised that the stone fitted the other half given to him by the miner perfectly and discovered that he had been cheated. As was the custom in those days, the miner and his entire family were burned alive as a reprisal. His wife, Daw Nan Kyi, was said to have somehow escaped the execution but witnessed it from a nearby hillside before dying of a broken heart, broken in half in the same way as the ruby. The tale of the Nga Mauk ruby returns from history in the 1870s. In the reign of King Mindon (1853-1878), the French and British were rapidly colonising South East Asia and a French industrialist approached the king to enquire as to how much he would have to pay in order for his company to mine the gems of Mogok. The king responded by showing the Frenchman the Nga Mauk and asking him how much he thought it was worth, to which he responded that it must be priceless. The king retorted, if you cannot tell me what this stone is worth how can I give you a value for the mine that produced it? The Frenchman was dumbfounded and left the country empty handed.

473px-Colonies_in_Southeast_Asia_(1895)

As soon as the British realised the French were interested in Mogok and Upper Burma they became concerned that they would overrun the region and dictate access to China via the Burma road. To counter this, in 1866 the British launched an invasion of Burma with the backing of a consortium of London gem merchants and the express aim of taking control of the Mogok ruby mines. In 1889 they founded Burma Ruby Mines Limited which, with a buoyant share price, succeeded to obtaining a number of leases and traded profitably until the First World War. As part of the modernisation process they introduced water cannons, washing plants and mechanised mining methods. They also launched a massive marketing campaign around the world to promote Burma rubies to western consumers. There were however a number of operational issues, including flooding, theft and competition from synthetic rubies which ultimately lead to the mines being abandoned in 1931. In the 1950s, post independence, the French traveller and author Joseph Kessel journeyed to the region and wrote the novel Mogok, the Valley of Rubies, which did much to raise the profile of region. After the departure of the British production returned to small-scale independent methods, which actually turned out to be more sustainable and profitable in the long term. The military government nationalised the mines in 1969 and smuggling and corruption became rife. Since 1990, with regulations eased, joint ventures have begun to scale mining operations in this region again.

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