Burmese sapphire giants by RW Hughes & U Hla Win

Burmese Sapphire Giants

by Richard W. Hughes and U Hla Win

Introduction to Burmese sapphires

Although it is rubies for which Burma (Myanmar) is famous, some of the world's finest blue sapphires are also mined in the Mogok area. Today the world gem trade recognizes the quality of Burmese sapphires, but this was not always the case. Edwin Streeter (1892) described Burmese sapphires as being overly dark. Unfortunately this error was later repeated by Max Bauer and others. G.F. Herbert Smith wrote…

While the Burma ruby is famed throughout the world as the finest of its kind the Burma sapphire has been ignominiously, but unjustly, dismissed as of poor quality. In actual fact nowhere in the world are such superb sapphires produced as in Burma.

G.F. Herbert Smith, Gemstones, 1972

While this statement must be qualified by adding that the finest Kashmir sapphires are in a class by themselves, those from Burma are also magnificent. J. Coggin Brown (1955) said this:

It has been stated that Burmese sapphires as a whole are usually too dark for general approval, but this is quite incorrect; next to the Kashmir sapphires they are unsurpassed. Speaking generally, Ceylon sapphires are too light and Siamese sapphires too dark, and it is more than probable that many of the best 'Ceylon' stones first saw the light of day from the mountainsides of the Mogok Stone Tract.

J. Coggin Brown, India's Mineral Wealth, 1955

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Figure 1. 21.09 carats of Burmese midnight-blue mystery. This stone, an example of Mogok's finest product, was offered in the late 1980s in Bangkok for $10,000/ct. wholesale.
(Photo: Adisorn Studio, Bangkok)

Not all Burma sapphires are deep in color. The best display a rich, intense, slightly violetish blue, but some are quite light, similar to those from Sri Lanka. The key difference between Burma and Ceylon sapphires is saturation, with those from Burma possessing much more color in the stone. Color banding, so prominent in Ceylon stones, may be entirely absent in Burma sapphires.

Burmese sapphires

Although rubies are found with much greater frequency at Mogok (rubies form about 80-90% of the total output), sapphires may reach larger sizes. Cut gems of over 100 carats are not unknown. Large fine star sapphires are also found at Mogok, in addition to star rubies. Near Kabaing (Khabine), at Kin, is located a mine famous for star sapphires.

The sapphires of Burma occur in intimate association with rubies in virtually all alluvial deposits throughout the Mogok area, but are found in quantity at only a few localities, particularly 8 miles (13 km) west of Mogok, near Kathé (Kathe). At Kyaungdwin, near Kathé, in 1926 a small pocket was discovered that yielded "many thousand pounds' [sterling] worth of magnificent sapphires within a few weeks." (Halford-Watkins, 1935b)

An interview with U Thu Daw

Longtime Mogok gem dealer, U Thu Daw, a contemporary of ACD Pain (of painite fame), was interviewed by one of the authors (U Hla Win). The following are some of his edited comments on Burmese sapphires:

U Hla Win: Were there any big sapphires found in the pre-World War II days?

U Thu Daw: Yes, including some famous stones. U Kyauk Lon from Gwebin village found one and sold it to Albert Ramsay for one lakh of kyats [US$13,000]. [Ramsay later named the 958-ct giant the 'Gem of the Jungle']

UHW: Isn't he the one who was famous for star sapphires?

UTD: Yes, he became famous because of his dealings in Mogok, although he did not have much money when he first arrived.

UHW: Do you know of any other famous sapphires?

UTD: Yes. U Shwe Hlaing of Zegyi found one which weighed over 100 carats after cutting. I saw it with my own eyes and it was quite beautiful.

UHW: How much did it sell for?

UTD: U Shwe Hlaing did not sell it in Mogok. After attempting to sell the gem in England, it was eventually sold to U Shwe Kin, owner of Rangoon's Kwan Louk Hotel, for under one lakh kyats. U Shwe Kin reportedly later sold it in Hong Kong.

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Figure 2.  U Thu Daw of Mogok with his microscope formerly owned by ACD Pain. (Photo: U Khin Mg Win).

 

UHW: Any other sapphires?

UTD: Of course. U Kan from Ze Haung (Old Market) had one which weighed 1450 cts. U Shwe Kin also bought this one, for 70,000 kyats. But this time he wasn't so lucky. I think he cut it on a Saturday. U Shwe Kin's brother took it to Hong Kong. He was killed in a train wreck there and the stone lost. It was a fine sapphire and might have fetched 10,000 kyats.

UHW: Were there any famous sapphires in the post-war period?

UTD: I did not notice much. The famous sapphire mines are Loke Khet (Kaday-kadar), Chaunggyi (north of Mogok) and Lay Thar Taung. At Lay Thar Taung, the brothers, U Thein and U Ba Thaw, made a successful sapphire mine. There were so many sapphires mined that they had to be moved by horses. Those brothers were so kind-hearted that those who came to buy sapphire were sold bucketfuls. Many got rich because of those brothers.

UHW: Were the sapphires of good quality?

UTD: They were. Lay Thar Taung sapphires are famous in Mogok.

According to Halford-Watkins (1935b), the majority of fine sapphires were derived from the area between Ingaung and Gwebin. Sapphires have also been found near Bernardmyo: [1]

Bernardmyo itself at one time produced large quantities of sapphires, many of which were of magnificent colour and quality, though a number were of a peculiar indigo shade, which appeared either very dark or an objectionable greenish tint by artificial light. During an extensive native mining rush to Bernardmyo in 1913 a number of these stones were placed on the London market.

Many of the stones found in this area were coated with a thin skin of almost opaque indigo colour which, on being ground off, revealed a centre sometimes of a fine gem quality, but in many cases of greenish shade. The method of occurrence was different from that anywhere else as the majority of stones were taken from a hard black iron-cemented conglomerate, which was found layers a few inches thick, often only a few feet below the surface. This area now appears to be exhausted, and little mining is carried on there to-day except for peridots, which are abundant.

Another isolated local deposit which has produced some fine sapphires occurs at Chaungyi, four miles north of Mogok, and about a thousand feet higher.

J.F. Halford-Watkins, 1935b

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Figure 3.  Map of the sapphire-producing regions of Burma's Mogok Stone Tract. (Modified by R.W. Hughes from Halford-Watkins, 1935b)

Other than blue, sapphires also occur in violet, purple, colorless and yellow colors at Mogok. The violet and purple stones may be fine; yellows tend to be on the light side and are not common. Green sapphires are known, but rare.

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Figure 4.  Sapphire mine of U Mya Mg at Khabine, near Gwebin, Mogok, Burma. In February of 1994, this mine yielded the 502-ct sapphire crystal in Figure 6. (Photo: U Khin Mg Win)

Rough orientation

Orientation of sapphires from Mogok is important. While stones from localities such as Kyauk Pyat That retain their rich blue hue in various orientations, those from Chaunggyi and Painpyit take on a greenish tint when the c axis is not exactly perpendicular to the table. Many Mogok dealers attribute this phenomena to "invisible black silk," and pay strict attention to locality when buying sapphire rough (U Hla Win, pers. comm., 2 Sept., 1994).

Famous Burmese sapphires

SM Tagore in his classic work, Mani-Málá (1879, 1881), describes several celebrated sapphires. One of these was a fabulous stone of 951 cts, and was seen by an English ambassador to the Court of Ava (Burma). Tagore also mentions a curious custom among the Hindus of India. They were said to have a prejudice against sapphires, believing the blue gem to be the bringer of misfortune.

In consequence of this notion, some of them would invariably keep a stone on trial for several days before they would make final settlement with the sellers. Hence, perhaps, the paucity in the numbers of Sapphires in their possession.

SM Tagore, Mani-Málá, 1879

One magnificent Gwebin gem was scratched up just below the grass in 1929 by miners preparing a site for digging. Found by U Kyauk Lon (U Hla Win, pers. comm., May 2, 1994), it was a water-worn, doubly-truncated pyramid weighing an incredible 958 cts. Purchased for $13,000 by Albert Ramsay, who dubbed it the Gem of the Jungle, the rough produced nine fine cut stones, weighing 66.53, 20.11, 19.19, 13.15, 12.29, 11.39, 11.18, 5.57, and 4.39 cts. All stones were personally cut by Ramsay and were said to be of exceptional color. A marvelous account of the purchase and cutting of the Gem of the Jungle was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1934 (Ramsay and Sparkes, 1934).

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Figure 5.  Left: U Tun, one of the most prominent sapphire dealers in Mogok in colonial times.
Right: U Thein, one of the brothers who mined sapphires at Lay Thar Taung.
(Photos: U Khin Mg Win, Mogok)

About 1967, a 12.6-kg (63,000 ct) crystal surfaced at Mogok. Today this sapphire colossus is on display at the Myanma Gems Enterprise (MGE) office. Like virtually all giant specimens, it is far from gem quality. In order to see if something of gem quality might be lurking within, MGE staff disemboweled it with drill and saw. Alas, the interior was just as opaque as the skin (see Figure 4). While this piece is billed by MGE as the "world's largest sapphire crystal," in fact a number of much larger specimens are known, including a 40.3 kg crystal from Sri Lanka which contains gemmy portions (see Table 2).

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Figure 6.  The 12.6-kg sapphire giant owned by Myanma Gems Enterprise. Note the large central piece which was removed in an attempt to see if gem material might lie within. (Photos: U Khin Mg Win)

On Feb. 22, 1994, a large sapphire of 502 cts was unearthed at Khabine, about 2.4 kms from Gwebin. The crystal is a single pyramid of rich blue color, and slightly silky (see Figure 6).

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Figure 7.  Left: 502-ct Burmese sapphire crystal. This was unearthed on Feb. 22, 1994, at Khabine, near Gwebin, in Burma's Mogok Stone Tract.
Right: The base of the crystal, showing concentrations of silk.
(Photos: U Khin Mg Win)

Table 1 is an admittedly weak attempt to catalog some of the more famous Burmese sapphires. Criteria for being listed includes titled specimens, specimens large or fine enough to merit mention in newspaper/magazine articles, and those which have set auction records. Unfortunately, due to the secretive nature of the gem business, many fine specimens have never been publicly described. The authors would love to hear from readers with additional information.

Table 1: Summary of famous Burmese blue sapphires

Name, weight, description and sale price* Source &
date found
Current location Reference
Ruspoli's Sapphire ('Wooden Spoon Seller's Sapphire' or 'Great Sapphire of Louis XIV')
135.8 cts; faceted; rhomb shaped (only six facets); said to have been found by a wooden spoon seller in Bengal; sold by the House of Ruspoli (Rospoli?) of Rome to a German prince (salesman?), who in turn sold it to the French jeweler Perret for 170,000 francs. Later purchased by Louis XIV.
Said to be Bengal; probably Burma or Sri Lanka
Date unknown
Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris
Valued at 100,000 pounds in 1791
Tagore, 1879, 1881
Streeter, 1892
Bank, 1973
H.-J. Schubnel (pers. comm., 16 Dec., 1994; 5 Jan., 1995)
Unnamed
951 cts; rough or cut unknown; seen in 1827 in the treasury of the king of Ava
Unknown (Burma?)
Date unknown
Unknown Smith, 1913
Unnamed
Rough, weight unknown; sold for Rs28,000 (£1,870)
Redhill Mine
Mogok, Burma
1917
Unknown Times of London, July 11, 1917
Unnamed
113 cts; rough; sold for Rs45,000
Bernardmyo, Mogok, Burma
May 10, 1919
Unknown Times of London, July 15, 1919
Unnamed
Weight unknown; rough; sold for Rs40,000
Mogok, Burma
1919
Unknown Times of London, July 15, 1919
Unnamed
437 cts; not stated whether rough or cut; valued at over £11,000
Mogok, Burma
1928
Unknown Mineral Industry, 1929
Gem of the Jungle
958 cts. rough; cut stones of 66.50 (66.53?), 20.25, 20.00, 13.11, 12.25, 11.33, 11.11, 5.50 and 4.33 cts; purchased by Albert Ramsay for over £13,000
Gwebin, Mogok, Burma
August, 1929 (or July, 1930)
Unknown Mineral Industry, 1930
Mineral Industry, 1931
Ramsay et al., 1934
Halford-Watkins, 1935a
Star of Asia
330 cts; cabochon cut; blue-violet star sapphire; acquired in 1961 from Martin Ehrmann; once said to belong to the Maharaja of Jodhpur
Burma
Date unknown
Smithsonian Desautels, 1972
White, 1991
Unnamed
630 cts rough (upon breaking up for cutting, it proved less valuable than expected)
Kathé
Mogok, Burma
May, 1930
Unknown Times of London, May 31, 1930
Mineral Industry, 1930, 1932
Brown, 1933
Unnamed
293 cts rough
Kathé
Mogok, Burma
1930
Unknown Brown, 1933
Unnamed
nearly 1000 cts rough
Gwebin, Mogok, Burma
Aug. 12, 1932
Unknown Brown, 1933
Unnamed
514 cts; rough
Mogok, Burma
Dec., 1932
Unknown Brown, 1933
Unnamed star sapphire
435 cts; not known whether rough or cut
Kathé, Mogok, Burma
1932
Unknown Mineral Industry, 1934
Unnamed
390 cts; rough; sold for over £3,000
Mogok, Burma
1930s
Unknown Halford-Watkins, 1935b
Unnamed
~99 cts; faceted; round; offered for sale in Bangkok in early 1980s for $10,000/ct
Burma
Date unknown
Unknown Author (RWH)
Unnamed
41.04 cts; faceted; emerald cut; sold at Sotheby's New York, Oct. 1986 for $924,000 ($22,515/ct)
Burma
Date unknown
Purchased by American retailer Anonymous, 1986
Unnamed
62.02 cts; faceted, rectangular step cut; mounted in diamond ring; sold at Sotheby's St. Moritz, Feb. 20, 1988, for $2,828,546 ($45,607/ct). Per carat and total price world record for a single blue sapphire.
Burma
Date unknown
Unknown Hughes et al., 1988
Matthews, 1993
Unnamed
4145 cts; rough; offered for sale at 1993 Myanma Gems Enterprise Emporium (Lot 95; reserve price $300,000)
Burma
Date unknown
Unknown U Hla Win, pers. comm., 2 Sept., 1994
Unnamed
14,387 cts; rough; offered for sale at 1993 Myanma Gems Enterprise Emporium (Lot 96; reserve price $50,000)
Burma
Date unknown
Unknown U Hla Win, pers. comm., 2 Sept., 1994
Unnamed
251.60 cts; star cabochon; offered for sale at 1993 Myanma Gems Enterprise Emporium (Lot 165; reserve price $300,000)
Burma
Date unknown
Unknown U Hla Win, pers. comm., 2 Sept., 1994
Unnamed
502 cts; rough, pyramid-shaped crystal, silky, of good color
Kabaing, Mogok, Burma
Feb. 22, 1994
Unknown U Hla Win, pers. comm., June 22, 1994
*On April 1, 1914, the carat was standardized as 200 milligrams. Weights before that date are approximate only. All dollar prices in US dollars unless stated otherwise. [ return to top of table ]

Table 2: Summary of rough corundum giants
(generally not gem quality)

Name, weight, description and sale price* Source &
date found
Current location Reference
Unnamed
312 lb (141.5 kg; 707,500 cts); opaque, red and blue crystal
Franklin, NC
Before 1882
Shepard Collection
Amherst College, USA
Kunz, 1892
Unnamed
Over 10 lb (4.5 kg); sapphire crystal
Mogok, Burma
1928
Unknown Mineral Industry, 1929
Unnamed
335 lb (152 kg); hexagonal bipyramid crystal (not gem quality); 2 ft, 3 in (68.58 cm) in width. This is the largest known corundum crystal on record.
Leydsdorp, Northern Transvaal, South Africa
Date unknown
Geological Survey Museum, Pretoria, South Africa Spencer, 1933
Anonymous, 1951
Unnamed
42 lb (19 kg); crystal said to be in the shape of the island of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
Date unknown
American Museum of Natural History? Anonymous, 1936
Wijesekera, 1980
Unnamed
34 lb (15.42 kg); crystal
Source unknown
Date unknown
British Museum Anonymous, 1951
Unnamed
63,000 cts (12.6 kg; 27.783 lb); rough crystal, bluish gray pyramid (not gem quality); 27 x 14.25 6.75 in (68.58 36.195 17.145 cm)
Mogok, Burma
ca. 1967
Myanma Gems Enterprise, Burma Anonymous, 1967
Unnamed
40.3 kg; rough, doubly-terminated bipyramid crystal
Rakwana, Sri Lanka
Date unknown
Unknown Koivula and Kammerling, 1989
Unnamed
4,230 cts; rough; bluish bipyramidal crystal; not gemmy
Lokekhet ('Kadegadar') Mogok, Burma
Sept. 1990
Myanma Gems Enterprise, Burma Working People's Daily, 5 Feb, 1991
Clark, 1991, p. 68
*On April 1, 1914, the carat was standardized as 200 milligrams. Weights before that date are approximate only. All dollar prices in US dollars unless stated otherwise. [ return to top of table ]

 

Acknowledgments

U Hla Win would like to give thanks to U Thu Daw for educating him about Burmese sapphires, and to U Khin Mg Win for the photographs.

Richard Hughes would like to thank Bob Frey, expert in various things Chinese and founding member of HAW HAW, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in both editing and locating obscure references.

References2

  • Anonymous (1936) Largest sapphire to be cut. The Gemmologist, Vol. 5, No. 58, p. 247; RWHL.
  • Anonymous (1951) Famous sapphires. The Gemmologist, Vol. 20, No. 240, p. 165; RWHL*.
  • Anonymous (1967) Gemological Digests: World's largest star sapphire. Gems & Gemology, Vol. 12, No. 5, Spring, p. 158; RWHL.
  • Anonymous (1986) Sotheby's sets records with ruby and diamond. Jewelers' Circular-Keystone, December, p. 75; RWHL*.
  • Bank, H. (1973) From the World of Gemstones. Trans. by E.H. Rutland, Innsbruck, Pinguin-Verlag, 178 pp.; RWHL.
  • Brown, J.C. (1933) Ruby mining in Upper Burma. Mining Magazine, June, pp. 329–340, RWHL*.
  • Brown, J.C. and Dey, A.K. (1955) India's Mineral Wealth. 2nd ed., Bombay, Oxford University Press, 761 pp., RWHL*.
  • Clark, C. (1991) Burma Emporium: The ultimate treasure hunt. JewelSiam, No. 2, April-May, April/May, pp. 58–71; RWHL.
  • Desautels, P.E. (1972) Gems in the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 63 pp.; RWHL.
  • Halford-Watkins, J.F. (1935a) Burma sapphires – in defense of a much-abused name. The Gemmologist, Vol. 5, No. 50, September, pp. 39–43, RWHL*.
  • Halford-Watkins, J.F. (1935b) Burma sapphires – locations and characteristics. The Gemmologist, Vol. 5, No. 52, November, pp. 89–98, RWHL*.
  • Hughes, R.W. and Sersen, W.J. (1988) Bangkok Gem Market Review. Gemological Digest, Vol. 2, Nos. 1 & 2, pp. 20–22, RWHL.
  • Koivula, J.I. and Kammerling, R.C. (1989) Gem News: Huge, doubly-terminated sapphire crystal. Gems and Gemology, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, p. 247; RWHL.
  • Kunz, G.F. (1892) Gems and Precious Stones of North America. Reprinted by Dover, 1968 (367 pp.), New York, The Scientific Publishing Co., 336 pp., RWHL*.
  • Matthews, P., ed. (1993) The Guinness Book of Records 1993. New York, Bantam Books, 847 pp.; RWHL.
  • Mineral Industry (1893–1942) Precious and semi-precious stones [famous gems]. In The Mineral Industry, its Statistics, Technology and Trade During…, Ed. by G.F. Kunz and G.A. Roush, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1924: pp. 579–582; 1929: pp. 532–534; 1930: pp. 549–550; 1931: pp. 524–525; 1932: pp. 478–479; 1934; pp. 508–509; 1935: p. 508; 1942: p. 483; RWHL.
  • Ramsay, A. and Sparkes, B. (1934) Bright jewels of the mine, parts 1–3. The Saturday Evening Post, Parts 1–3, 15 Sept.: pp. 10–11, 65–66, 69; 29 Sept.: p. 26, 28, 34, 36, 39; 20 Oct.: pp. 26–27, 76, 78, 80; RWHL*.
  • Smith, G.F.H. (1913) Gem-Stones and their Distinctive Characters. London, Methuen & Co., 2nd edition (1st ed. 1912), 312 pp.; RWHL*.
  • Smith, G.F.H. (1972) Gemstones. 14th edition, revised by F.C. Phillips, London, Chapman and Hall, 580 pp.; RWHL.
  • Spencer, L.J. (1933) Nation acquires large ruby. The Gemmologist, Vol. 2, No. 18, pp. 176–178, RWHL.
  • Streeter, G.S. (1887) The ruby mines of Burma. Journal of the Manchester Geographic Society, No. 3, pp. 216–220, map; RWHL*.
  • Streeter, G.S. (1889) The ruby mines of Burma. Journal of the Society of Arts, No. 37, February 22, pp. 266–275; RWHL*.
  • Streeter, E.W. (1892) Precious Stones and Gems. 5th edition, London, Bell, 355 pp., RWHL*.
  • Tagore, S.M. (1879, 1881) Mani-Málá, or a Treatise on Gems. Calcutta, I.C. Bose & Co., 2 vols., 1046 pp., RWHL*.
  • Times of London (1878–1933) [Important rubies and sapphires]. The Times, London, 1878, Dec. 20, p. 6d; 1880, March 5, p. 7d; March 6, p. 5e; June 22, p. 10f; Oct. 11, p. 5b; 1885, Dec. 5, p. 5; 1886, March 17, p. 5; 1889, 1917, July 11, p. 13c; 1918, July 10, 12e; 1919, July 15, p. 20a; Aug. 25, p. 9f; 1920, July 12, p. 22f; July 20, p. 20e; 1921, June 23, p. 12c; 1924, Nov. 12, p. 11b, 11g, 3*, 4*; 1930, May 31, p. 12e; 1931, June 4, p. 13g; 1932, April 27, p. 13g; 1933, Feb. 3, RWHL.
  • White, J.S. (1991) The Smithsonian Treasury: Minerals and Gems. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 96 pp.; RWHL
  • Wijesekera, N. (1980) Gemstones of Sri Lanka. Lapidary Journal, October, pp. 1616–1618; RWHL.
  • Working People's Daily (1991) SLORC Chairman Senior General Saw Maung inspects world's largest sapphire. Working People's Daily, Rangoon, 5 February, seen.

Notes

  1. The plateau of Bernardmyo was chosen by the first British expedition to Mogok as a suitable place for a sanitarium for British troops. It was thought that the climate was more suitable for Europeans and that eventually the place would develop into the Simla of Burma. Bernardmyo was christened after the first British Chief Commissioner of Upper Burma, Sir Charles Bernard (GS Streeter, 1887, 1889). [ return to article ]
  2. RWHL = References contained in the personal library of Richard W. Hughes

* = References of particular merit [ return to References ]

 

 

Author's Afterword

This article was based in part on an excerpt from my book, Ruby & Sapphire. It was published in 1995 in the Journal of Gemmology (Vol. 24, No. 8, October, pp. 551–561). I was able to meet U Thu Daw during my first visit to Mogok in 1996. Sadly, he passed away shortly thereafter.

 

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