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The War Of The Rubies

"By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea. There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me; For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple-bells they say: 'Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay."

When Rudyard Kipling published his famous barrack-room ballad, "Mandalay," in 1892, he meant the poem to celebrate the last and shortest of England's three 19th century wars of conquest with Burma. Fought in 1885, this war extended British rule over the top part of this Southeast Asian country and, to Kipling, was merely one more successful exercise in empire building.

Little did the poet know that the third Burmese campaign, unlike its predecessors of 1824 and 1852, had far more to do with trade than turf and was motivated by a thirst for gems rather than glory. Upper Burma, as it was then called, was home to the world's most famous ruby deposit, a 66-square-mile tract called Mogok 90 miles northwest of Mandalay. For centuries, miners there had been extracting the finest examples of this red corundum ever found.

So when the Brits learned that the French, their arch-rivals in the region, were about to sign with leaders in the north for exclusive mining rights at Mogok, they took the rather drastic step of invading to stop the deal. Soon after the annexation, they gave the Mogok mining concession to the newly formed Britain-based Burma Ruby Mining Company and named London jeweler Edwin Streeter the sole seller of the company's cut stones. By 1890, Streeter was the Harry Winston of his time for ruby.


To this day, the role of rubies in the English army's sudden, swift march north to Mandalay is rarely discussed. But if Kipling had ever read Travels in India, Paris jeweler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier's 1676 account of his seven voyages to Asia between 1641 and 1667, he might have guessed his government's real reason for the invasion of Upper Burma. Called Pegu in Tavernier's time, this kingdom then shared with Ceylon the distinction of being the only significant source of ruby. But Pegu's ruby was so superior to Ceylon's that the Frenchman had to bribe dealers to show him their best stones. Burma's role as ruby producer was no less crucial when, more than two centuries later, Kipling romanticized his countrymen's exploits in "Mandalay."

Today, as much as ever, Burma retains a peerless reputation for ruby--although it faces stiff competition as a source of classy stones from newer producers such as Vietnam. Nevertheless, top-notch Burmese rubies are so prized that they can command a premium if accompanied by sufficient gemological or historical documentation to verify origin from that country. Granted, providing such pedigrees isn't easy (in fact, many gem dealers and gemologists will tell you that origin is nearly impossible to prove), but, at least, the growing demand for such pedigrees demonstrates the high esteem in which Burma is held by gem connoisseurs and collectors worldwide. 

This isn't to say that rubies from other places don't fetch handsome sums. To the contrary, exceptional stones from Thailand and Vietnam--ones usually very different in character from fine Burmese stones--summon top dollar, too. Nowadays jewelers tend to have enough gemological training and sophistication to explain to customers that different geophysical circumstances will affect the color and appearance of stones. For instance, Vietnamese rubies tend to be lighter in tone and pinker in color while Thai rubies tend to be darker in tone and purpler in color. Both localities produce superb gems which are recognized as such in their own right.

Yet the Burma mystique survives. And the reasons it does have to do with both history and aesthetics. For the 500 years that Mogok has been known to be worked, its stones have served as the measure of value and beauty for ruby. No other precious stone has known such continuity in terms of supply. As a result, no other gem has enjoyed such longstanding uniformity of aesthetic standards. True, Colombia has been the main producer of fine emerald in the same period. But in the case of this green beryl, there were three praiseworthy sources--Muzo, Chivor and Coscuez--to count on, each of which provided emerald with distinctive color characteristics.

Regarding ruby, however, the world depended on a single deposit, Mogok, for nearly all of its top gems. The strong, vibrant color of the best of its stones--one variously likened to the orangy-red of a Marlboro box or a stop light--remains the benchmark for ruby beauty. The ancients described the stellar hue of Burma's best ruby more graphically as "pigeon's-blood" red. Mind you, they must have been referring to the non-oxidized blood from a fresh-killed bird. Oxidized blood is too dark and purple to be compared to Burma ruby.

In any case, centuries of dependence on a single source for fine ruby has contributed to this gem's preeminence in terms of value as well as beauty. No other gem, except diamond, has ever fetched $250,000 per carat at auction--the current record for colored stones. Admittedly, that's a somewhat anomalous price. Nevertheless, until the 20th century, ruby was the yardstick of gem value. "A clear, transparent, and faultless ruby of a uniform red colour is at the present time the most valuable precious stone known", wrote the renowned German gemologist Max Bauer in 1894. "Except in ancient times, it is probable that the ruby has always held a foremost place in the estimation of connoisseurs".


To be sure, rarity contributed mightily to ruby's top-echelon status. By the late 19th century, production of other highly esteemed gems like diamond, blue sapphire and emerald far eclipsed that of ruby, especially in sizes above 5 carats. But even when these other gems were nearly as scarce as ruby, they weren't nearly as valuable. For example, around 1550, the great Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini reported that a top-notch 1-carat ruby was eight times more expensive than its 1-carat diamond counterpart (roughly $800 versus $100 in the trade). By Bauer's time, the ratio had shrunk to a still-considerable 2:1 - around $120 in the trade for a fine 1-carat ruby versus $60 for a comparable-quality diamond. Fine sapphire was even less: $50 was the dealer price for a fine 1 carat stone. Such prices make you wish that time travel was a reality.

However, going back to 1890 or thereabouts wouldn't be a bargain hunter's dream if you went in search of fine rubies of 3 carats and more. Nor, for that matter, would it guarantee any greater availability of such sizes. In Bauer's time, a jeweler had to cough up around $2,400 for a fine 3-carat ruby while a fine 5-carat stone cost him around $2,800 per carat. Those were big sums then--and they are nothing to sneeze at now.

In any case, the mind-boggling leap in cost from $120 for a 1 carat stone to $7,200 for a three carat stone shows you how extraordinarily rare large fine rubies were and are. Indeed, stones from the newest and most celebrated ruby deposits discovered in recent years--Mong Hsu in Burma and Vietnam--are generally small in size. So when Bauer reports that an exemplary 9.30-carat ruby was appraised by Tiffany's top man for $33,000 ($3,500 per carat), these are prices that make even the most jaded modern pause for breath. But, hey, steep prices, then and now, are what you would expect to pay for fine rubies. Therefore, if any gem deserves Rembrandt-status, it is ruby. That's a status it is likely to keep for the indefinite future.




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