Almost five years ago, I invited two eminent gemologists to post their perspectives on linking environmental conservation and gemstone mining through an innovative mechanism of supply chain tracing. In this post, Dr. Laurent Cartier, one of the authors of the earlier article, shares perspectives on how the colored gemstone sector in post-sanctions Myanmar / Burma has changed to allow for more responsible mining and trading practices. This narrative is particularly timely as in October 2016, the United States government lifted sanctions on gemstone trading against the country.
Guest article by Dr. Laurent E. Cartier
The Mogok Stone Tract in Upper Burma (Myanmar) has been known to produce exceptional rubies since centuries, with records of mining activities dating back to at least the 16th century. The Mogok Stone Tract is, however, also an important source of other gemstones such as sapphire, spinel, peridot, spessartine, zircon, topaz and many others. It is also the source of many rare gemstones, such as painite. Apart from emeralds, nearly all gemstone types have been found in the Mogok Stone Tract. This is a rare and unique thing in the world of geology and gemstones. The recent announcement of the lifting of the US ban on Burmese rubies is a great opportunity to further explore and engage with this historically important region for worldwide gemstone production.
It is one of the few regions on the planet with such a high concentration of gemstone mines that have produced such high quality gemstones consistently, from both primary and secondary deposits. Few other places on earth have such a strong tradition and so many people intimately involved with the extraction and trade of gemstones. Some of the most expensive gemstones in the world come from this area of Burma (Myanmar). Unheated rubies from Mogok that lie within the narrow ‘pigeon-blood’ ruby colour range are the most expensive coloured gemstones in the world. In May 2015, Sotheby’s achieved a new world record price for a ruby at auction by offering the 25.59 ct ‘Sunrise Ruby’ ring that was purchased for US$ 30 million.
Gemstone trading has been documented by Western travellers in this part of Upper Burma since the 16th century. But it is believed that gemstone production and trade began earlier, around 6th century AD (Streeter 1889; Hughes, 1997). In 1597, the Burmese king Nuha-Thura Maha Dhama-Yaza annexed the Mogok and Kyatpyin regions as a way gaining direct access to rubies and other gemstones. Up to the 19th century the mines were under strict control of different Burmese rulers and there was little room for independent mining.
In 1886, the British annexed Upper Burma and effectively took control of the Mogok Stone Tract region too. The mines were leased to a British firm (Burma Ruby Mines Ltd.) from 1889 to 1931, and they attempted to mechanise operations in order to increase gemstone yields and profitability. In the beginning, this was a challenging feat especially because they found that the richest gemstone deposits were in fact located under Mogok, leading to the relocation of the entire village. In 1929, intense rains led to flooding of mines, and the lake that resulted from this event can be seen in the centre of Mogok town to this day. Subsequently, locals took to using traditional mining techniques as mechanised mining was seen as too complicated and in many cases unprofitable. Mogok was largely closed off to foreigners in the past decades. Recent political developments in Burma (Myanmar) have led to foreigners being allowed to visit Mogok since 2013 but still requiring a special permission/visa to do so.
Geology of Gemstone Deposits in Mogok
The geology of the Mogok Stone Tract is complex. It consists primarily of high-grade metamorphic schists and gneisses; granite intrusives, including gem-bearing pegmatites; peridot-bearing ultramafic rocks; sapphire-bearing syenite and skarn; and ruby- and spinel-bearing metamorphic marble. With gemstone extraction dating back centuries, many Mogok deposits are increasingly exhausted; especially surface-near alluvial placers that are easier to work. It is clearly becoming both more challenging and capital-intensive to mine for gemstones in Mogok. The trend is going towards more mechanisation as people search for remaining gemstones within the primary gemstone-bearing marble and gneiss host rocks. It must be added that local geological experience – including of artisanal miners- is high, given the longstanding tradition of searching and extracting gemstones in the Mogok Stone Tract.
Gem-bearing gravels found in the rivers and valleys of the Tract have accumulated as a result of erosion and weathering. The gem-bearing gravel layer is locally called byon, in which all types of gemstones have been found, including ruby, sapphire, spinel, quartz, tourmaline, garnet, zircon, topaz and others.
At present, it is roughly estimated that there are 1000-1200 gemstone mining operations in the Mogok Stone Tract. These range from individual artisanal miners, to cooperatives, independent miners, semi-mechanised operations to large-scale mining companies working with modern excavators, drill-blasting and exploration techniques. The range of methods used is truly impressive. Traditional mining techniques include twin-lon, lebin, hmyadwin and lud-win. Lud-win, for example, involves recovering gem-bearing byon from karstic limestone caves and fissures which can be sources of rich concentrations of gemstones. Today, quarrying (tunnelling) in primary host rock and opencast mining of secondary deposits are the most commonly encountered methods.
As it becomes more difficult to find gemstones there is an increasing shift towards mechanised mining in primary marble and other metamorphic deposits that are complex to work. The exhaustion of easily workable secondary deposits is reducing opportunities for independent seasonal miners. Mogok has a longstanding tradition whereby local miners can re-work the tailings of mines in the hope of finding overlooked gemstones. Under the British these kanase miners were limited to women miners, but today many local miners – both men and women- continue to complement their incomes through sporadic mining as kanase. As mechanised mining becomes more important, opportunities for kanase mining may become reduced in future. This would be unfortunate given that the kanase have been a steady source of rough small gemstones that has supplied and supported vibrant local markets. Many of these stones are then traded further and cut in Mogok, showing that gemstones can provide local economic opportunities stretching far beyond simple mining. Growing mechanised mines are striving for vertical integration and the yielded gemstones may go directly to Yangon or Bangkok for further processing, unfortunately reducing beneficiation opportunities in the form of gemstone trade, processing and manufacturing in Mogok.
Gemstone trading and processing: US ban lifted
The controversial US ban (Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act passed in 2008) on Burmese jade and ruby was lifted in early October 2016, now opening up new opportunities for the gemstone trade. General consensus in the region has been that the US ban has missed its targets. It must be added that the context and dynamics in terms of local geopolitics, geology, mining and trading is very different in Mogok compared to the jade mining areas around Hpakant in Kachin state. It seems the ban in Mogok has hindered artisanal miners and local miners and reinforced the power of larger players in the industry. Observers who have visited Mogok before and after the ban confirm that the trend has clearly been an increase in mechanisation, which has partially also been fuelled by demand for these gemstones by the Chinese market and complex geology. Importantly, women are very much present in gemstone trading as the kanase mining tradition began solely for women. Mogok may thus provide some useful lessons on how to improve the role of women in the gemstone industry at large.
As the jewellery industry reflects on how to best regulate and improve conditions within its supply chain, it is worth studying Mogok as a case study for gemstones. This includes efforts to expand EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Iniative) or RJC (Responsible Jewellery Council) Standards to also cover coloured gemstones. Furthermore, the impacts of the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act on local miners and the local trade merit to be studied in detail. Although most US government sanctions impacting the sector have been lifted in October 2016, their impact will persist for some years to come. Mogok is truly exceptional not only in the diversity of gemstones it produces but also the know-how and traditions in gemstones that have developed there over generations. The post-ban era presents a interesting opportunity to address and engage with sustainability issues in the sector. Mogok has an inimitable sense of place, of being and of pride. What the region needs most is not disengagement or further bans. It needs engagement through the gemstone and jewellery community. After all, this is one of the traditional epicentres of the gemstone world. It needs to be protected and preserved for future generations.
Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank Dr. Michael Krzemnicki (SSEF) and Dr. Walter Balmer for discussions and support in the field. Mie Mie Tin Htut, Ko Choo, Kyaw Swar Htun are thanked for their kind assistance and support in visiting numerous Mogok gemstone mines.