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Mogok Ruby

For centuries, the mystique surrounding Burma ruby has centered on stones from one extensive jungle tract known as Mogok, 400 or so miles north of Rangoon, this Southeast Asian country's capital. So valued were Mogok's rubies that England annexed Upper Burma in 1885 rather than let French firms negotiate mining deals there. Today the mere mention of this origin point still invites expectations of ruby so high that a Mogok ruby is considered the gem equivalent of a Rembrandt painting.

But Mogok isn't just the 70 square miles of a 400-square-mile area east of Mandalay that have variously been combed for ruby for 700 years at least. To the few gemologists and dealers who have visited this ruby-rich locality since a 28-year ban on travel there was lifted in 1991, the term Mogok now encompasses nearly a dozen far-flung mining sites throughout Burma, many of which are recent workings. However, because the finest rubies from each of these old and new deposits possessed similarly stellar appearance, color, and transparency, ruby experts let the place-name Mogok serve both as a composite for Burma's ruby localities and a generic for the unsurpassed excellence of their top stones. In other words, Mogok is a quality-assurance term for fine Burmese ruby the way Muzo is for fine Colombian emerald.

Or so it was until 1992. That's when Mogok suddenly ceased to be Burma's main ruby-mining district and the country's stones lost the long-standing privilege and protection of the Mogok name. Here's why.

Ruby Rush

Before 1969, the year Burma's gem mines were nationalized by the country's ruling generals, Mogok was, for all practical purposes, the world's sole significant source of ruby. But the sudden cut-off of Burmese material forced the market to rely on Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia for ruby. Early in this decade, just as Thailand's mines were being exhausted, Burma reasserted mining leadership when rubies from a mammoth new deposit at Mong Hsu (pronounced variously "Mong" or "Maing" Shu) to the southeast of Mogok began flooding the Bangkok market.

Almost overnight, Mong Hsu goods became "five to ten times more plentiful" than Thai goods in the heyday of that country's ruby production. Ever since, Thailand has been a ruby processor only. Don't get the wrong idea, though. Without Thai gem alchemy, most ruby, Mong Hsu's especially, would be unsellable.

This total dependence on heat-treatment has made Mong Hsu goods equal cause for celebration and consternation. For the first time in years, decent-quality Burmese ruby has been widely available at bargain prices. But while makers and marketers of low-end jewelry cheered, their counterparts on the market's high end jeered. Why the sharp difference in opinion?

When Mogok was the preeminent source of ruby, heating was common but not essential. But with Mong Hsu material, which is zoned with blue areas and clouded with fissures when mined, enhancement is as much a prerequisite as it is for Colombian emerald. In the case of Mong Hsu ruby, however, enhancement involved heating rather than oil or epoxy impregnation. Yet even after heating, Mong Hsu's best aren't comparable in quality or looks to Mogok's best.

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Burma Ruby