Deep in the hills of the north-eastern province of Mayanmar, across a few sleepy army checkposts on a stretch of road where cellphones loose their network signals, an old signpost with mountainous landscape as its backdrop reads : “WELCOME TO RUBY LAND”. This is the scenario of a lesser known and seldom visited town called Mogok.
Mogok is said to be the source of 90% of the world’s finest rubies.
Myanmar produces more than 80 percent of the world’s rubies, yet decades of isolation under the former military junta means the industry remains cloaked in mystery.
A general view of ruby mines in Mogok. For centuries emperors, kings and warlords have vied for control over the valley of Mogok, once known as the “land of rubies” for its extraordinary treasure trove of jewels.
Miners cleaning stones found inside the mines. Its unique “pigeon-blood” stones are the most expensive coloured gems in the world. The so-called ‘Sunrise Ruby’ was sold for a record $30.3 million in 2016, over $1 million a carat.
In October, the US lifted sanctions barring imports of the rubies in recognition of the country’s shift towards democracy under the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
A buyer checks a ruby in the gems market of Mogok. In 2003, US imposed its first round of sanctions barring imports of gems from Myanmar in a bid to starve the military government of funds.
Production in Mogok has surged since the mid-90s when the former junta first allowed in private companies, bringing with them heavy machinery and more intensive mining methods.
The industry is overseen by the Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE), a state-owned enterprise run by former military men that was taken off the US sanctions list in May.
Many private companies in Mogok are believed to be operated by Thais and Chinese, who use shell companies to bypass laws barring any foreigners from running Myanmar’s mines.
The highest-quality stones are smuggled across the country’s porous eastern borders to Bangkok or Hong Kong, where they are polished and made into jewellery.