Risking precious lives for precious stones

Rare gems in Myanmar are getting increasingly that - rare.

But the demand for rubies and jade that once existed in plentiful numbers has not dimmed.

The gem industry is worth billions and the jade trade makes up 10 per cent of Myanmar's total exports, 90 per cent of which goes to China.

Illegal jade, which comes from unmarked mines run by murky underground figures, is said to be worth much more.

Each morning, the Bogyoke Aung San Market in downtown Yangon fills with the sounds of traders and tourists haggling, eager to own a gleaming piece of Myanmar's most precious gems.


Myanmar's rubies from the Mogok Valley are prized above those from Afghanistan and Africa, and are said by gemologists to have the perfect combination of beauty, clarity and culture.

The most prized rubies have the colour of pigeon's blood, say experts. In May, a 25.9 carat pigeon-blood ruby was sold for a record US$30.33 million (S$42 million) at an auction in Geneva.

Dr Kyaw Thu, a gemologist who frequents Myanmar's mining towns, said that after decades of large-scale mining, the finest quality stones that were once found in abundance are now in short supply.

In Mogok Valley, ruby deposits are also drying up, he added.

Now prospectors have to go deep into the mountains, and dig down hundreds of metres to look for ruby deposits.

"Mogok's top quality rubies are becoming rare, especially the bigger stones," said Dr Kyaw Thu.

"Even a hairline crack or inclusion on an otherwise good gemstone can topple its price by thousands of dollars."

Inclusions are flaws that occur inside the gemstone, affecting its clarity, making it less brilliant or more vulnerable to shattering, said Dr Kyaw Thu.

The restive Kachin state contains the world's largest deposit of jade, but the once lush jungle has been mined to the ground.

A long-running conflict between the government and the Kachin minority is also stemming the supply, said Dr Kyaw Thu.

The shortage has made people take more risks.

The miners brave hazardous working conditions in search of precious stones under mountains of rocks that can crush them at any moment, said 67-year-old jeweller Sang Sang Khine.

"It all depends on your luck. Some people get rich in the mines, some die under the rubble," she said.

This article was first published on November 5, 2015.
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