(This article is dedicated to Twee Twee who was too young when she left us and who is still missed)
During the early 1990s, the gemstone industry was in the midst of a dilemma about the treatment and enhancement of gemstones. Even though the practice of enhancing gemstones has existed for hundreds of years, the industry was in turmoil and resisted the recent changes to the values of precious stones.
It was then in 1990 that I decided to travel to Myanmar (Burma) to shop for rubies and sapphires that were not treated. I was lucky to have Burmese women working for me who also had family members still trading in the gemstone industry in Burma. I had a list of suppliers, names of family members and friends, and I was excited to start a new venture but oblivious to the reality of the country’s political situation and the availability of fine gemstones and their authenticity.
My trip to Myanmar was to find natural unheated Burmese Rubies, known as "Pigeon's Blood Rubies." Rubies from Burma are known for their exceptional colors and are often the finest, most valuable gemstones. The most famous mine of top-quality rubies in Myanmar is the Mogok mine. The Mogok Stone is mined in upper Burma, approximately 644km (400 miles) north of Rangoon, Mogok has for the past 800 years been the premier source of fine rubies.
During my buying expeditions, I was ushered quietly and quickly from one house to another and while sitting in dark rooms in front of a shaded window I was presented with red and blue stones to be considered as a prospective investment. I couldn’t master all my knowledge and confidence while looking at these gemstones. I was in doubt every moment and wondered at the absurd situation I was in. I don’t come from the mentality of hiding or being afraid, but the reality was to trust your sources. Sitting in a dark shaded room, in hiding, is not an ideal situation for investing in expensive gemstones.
In the business of buying gemstones there are tricks that one picks up along the way. Tricks that often mean the difference between profit and loss. This “experience” is not found in gemological texts but it comes through “hard knocks.” We all have our collection of “hard knocks experiences” in the back of our dusty safes.
Every stone dealer knows that a stone’s appearance is not constant. It can change with the quality of light under which it is viewed. A change of color appearance is detrimental to a change in value. Seasoned traders only view their purchases under natural light. Natural light means direct sunlight and skylight (light coming from all directions of the sky except directly from the sun).
In most parts of the world, it is common for dealers and professional buyers of gemstones to view stones at a table situated at a window. Natural light is the accepted lighting standard, and some prefer it being a northern view only.
It is also commonly accepted that stone appearance assumes slightly distinct color distortion in different latitudes. The commonly accepted philosophy is that if a stone looks dark in the country of origin, it will look darker in America.
I know that looking at a ruby’s color on a June afternoon in Thailand will emit a light so powerfully bright that it will take a magnificent deep red color with a vibrant brilliance; the same stone in New York daylight will appear as a darker shade of red with less brilliance. The reason is that New York lies farther from the equator than Burma, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka.
These thoughts were constant on my mind while buying gemstones in Burma. It was not an ideal way to buy expensive gems. I knew it was not a typical situation.
The trade in Burmese rubies is banned, the country's corrupt military junta is forcing people to mine them in slave-labor conditions to line their own pockets.
Over the past four decades, the world has witnessed a nation that was once considered the most economically promising in Southeast Asia become one of the most militarily oppressed and underdeveloped in the world.
It is forbidden to buy Burmese rubies from the town of Mogok or anywhere is Burma. In many parts of Burma, it has become a no-go zone for foreigners to travel freely. The price of capture without the correct papers is dangerous.
For the past 50 years, the Magok mines have been nationalized and today are under the brutal control of the Burmese military. Along the roads the stamp of military rule is everywhere, from road signs warning travelers not to continue to abundant army patrols.
Throughout my trips, I was in hiding. During the first trip, I was there with my husband and we met a few friends who joined us because the travel opportunity to Myanmar was intriguing. We continuously discussed our fears and the dangers. It might have been the atmosphere and we probably picked up the locals’ fears. From the taxi ride after arriving at the airport, we were immediately presented with newspaper headlines about the American fascists. The trip was emotionally draining. Our hotel, The Stand, is a magnificent updated place to stay. It was an oasis in the middle of poverty and fear. The atmosphere and service reminded us of early 19th century travel on Oriental Express movies.
Please watch for our second part of “My travels through Myanmar buying Gemstones”
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at