Pigeon's Blood: A Pilgrimage to Mogok – Valley of Rubies
by Richard W. Hughes
All across Southeast Asia, the onset of the monsoon season is cause for celebration. The great rains that sweep out of the South China Sea each May bring smiles to the populace, for they carry the water which nurtures their livelihood – rice.
In Burma's Mogok Stone Tract, the sound of water is also something quite special. But the rains that wash over the hillsides of this remote valley nurture an entirely different crop – rubies – the finest in the world. And this year, the monsoon started early. The rain is falling and the population is smiling. But today's smiles are not simply because of the rain. Today, the people of Mogok smile because, for the first time in over three decades, tomorrow looks better than today.
Mogok: Valley of Rubies
The exact date when rubies were first discovered at Mogok is unknown. No doubt the first humans to settle the area found rubies and spinels in the rivers and streams. But according to local legend, the origins of the ruby mines were as follows:
Long before the Buddha walked the earth, the northern part of Burma was said to be inhabited only by wild animals and birds of prey. One day the biggest and oldest eagle in creation flew over a valley. On a hillside shone an enormous morsel of fresh meat, bright red in color. The eagle attempted to pick it up, but its claws could not penetrate the blood-red substance. Try as he may, he could not grasp it. After many attempts, at last he understood. It was not a piece of meat, but a sacred and peerless stone, made from the fire and blood of the earth itself. The stone was the first ruby on earth and the valley was Mogok.
This is the legendary Valley of Rubies, impenetrable due to the deadly serpents which covered its floor. To retrieve rubies, men would cast lumps of meat into the valley via catapults. Rubies would become attached to the meat, which was then carried out of the valley by large birds of prey. After the birds had sated their appetites, men would climb into their nests and retrieve the rubies from their droppings.
A city built on rubies
While rubies have been scraped out of the dirt at Mogok since prehistoric times, this underground wealth has not always enriched those living directly above. As knowledge of the crimson stones spread, more powerful rulers from outside the area levied tribute, payable in rubies. By the sixth century, local inhabitants were paying two viss (about 3.2 kg) of stones yearly to the central government.
By the time the first Europeans visited Burma in the fifteenth century, the gem wealth of the country was well known. In 1597 AD, when the Burmese monarch, Nuha-Thura Maha Dhama-Yaza tired of getting his rubies second-hand, he simply annexed the district, exchanging a small piece of his territory to the hapless Shan saopha (prince), who was powerless to stop him. Even today, a look at a map of Burma illustrates the remnants of this one-sided deal. The border separating Sagaing Division from the Shan State makes a sudden jog to enclose the area at Mogok.
After 1597 AD, the Mogok Stone Tract was operated as the private province of whoever had the strongest army. Mostly, this was the Burmese kings, who decreed that all stones above the value of Rs2000 were property of the crown. Concealing them was punishable by torture and death. So harsh was this rule that, by the time of the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1885, much of the local population had fled.
The brief period between the annexation and arrival of British troops represented the first time in centuries that miners were able to operate independent of state control. It was also to be the last. During the colonial period, Britain leased out the mines to an ill-fated London syndicate (the Burma Ruby Mines Ltd.); since independence in 1948, the Burmese government has kept a tight rein on the mines. From 1962 onwards, the country embarked on the "Burmese Road to Socialism," which brought further restrictions on gem mining and trading. The industry's nadir was reached in 1969, when the Ministry of Mines banned private exploration and mining of gems, effectively nationalizing the entire trade in precious stones.
In the past few years, trading in Burma has undergone a quiet revolution. Just four years ago, private gem trading was illegal; today, both rough and cut stones can be freely purchased by foreigners with dollars from licensed traders, with only a 10% export tax to be paid. Thus, for the first time in over 30 years, private trading and export of gems is both simple and legal. Keep in mind, though, that the purchase of gems in source countries such as Burma or Sri Lanka is strictly for professionals. Good stones are rare, even in Burma and synthetics and imitations abound. In short, if you're not an expert, stay away.
Pilgrimage to Mogok
I first began traveling the world as a teenager, and those travels eventually brought me to Burma, at age 19. It was there that I saw my first Burmese ruby. I was immediately hooked, head-over-heels in love with a pebble dug out of the ground in a remote Burmese valley. It wasn't simply the value which drew me to ruby. If it was value, I would just go out and get a few kilos of gold. No, it was something else entirely, something I couldn't quite put my finger on.
My love for rubies eventually developed into a desire to visit their source. Everyone has their own pilgrimage to make, their own personal Mecca. My Mecca was Mogok. But the area had been strictly off-limits to foreigners since 1962. Finally, in April of 1996, it happened. The Mogok door cracked open. This is what I found:
Mogok (1500 m) is located some 210 km and seven hours by road northeast of Mandalay. Consisting of heavily-jungled hills rising to a height of 2347 m above sea level, the Stone Tract covers about 400 sq miles, although only a portion (70 sq miles) is gem bearing. Considered one of the most scenic areas in Burma, it is home to a number of colorful ethnic groups, as well as a variety of wildlife, including elephants, tiger, bear and leopard.
The town itself is today a bustling city; the entire district probably contains 300,000–500,000 inhabitants. These consist of Burmese and Shan (Buddhist), Nepalese Gurkhas (Hindu), Lisu (Christian and Animist), along with a smattering of Muslims, Sikhs and those of Eurasian origin. The region's population has swelled tremendously in recent years, following the Burmese government's liberalization of the gem trade.
Occurrence of ruby & mining methods
Mogok's rubies occur in a crystalline limestone (marble). Bit by bit, millions of years of weathering freed the rubies from their marble womb, carrying them down from the hills to the valley floors, where they have settled in the bottom of the streams and rivers. It is from these ancient river gravels (locally termed byon) that the majority of stones have been recovered.
Five traditional types of mines exist in Mogok:
Some of the richest ruby finds have been made within lu-dwin caverns and crevices. One cavern proved so vast in size and the depth of the byon so great, that hmyaw-dwin and twin-lon were set up inside the cavern itself. Unfortunately the roof caved in, putting an ignoble halt to the proceedings. I was told of a cave near Yadana Kaday-kadar with a room the size of a football field, while another lu-dwin near Chaunggyi was said to be 2.4 km long.
The lu-dwin is by far the most dangerous type of mining, since it generally involves climbing down into narrow cracks and crevices which may be several kilometers in length and over a kilometer deep. In 1992, several miners died in a cave-in at a lu-dwin at Than Ta Yar.
One particularly rich lu-dwin near Bawpadan was termed the "Royal Lu" because, during the time of the Burmese monarchy, gems found there were of such high quality that they had to be turned over to the king. During my second visit to Mogok (May, 1996), I spent an entirely enjoyable afternoon scurrying through the long-abandoned crevices of Bawpadan's Royal Lu.
Washing the byon
Once sufficient byon is obtained, it is transported to the washing area, where, in a process similar to panning for gold, the heavier ruby is separated from the lighter waste.
Output from mechanized mines goes to a washing plant, to be separated by machine. Today, the government operates a central washing plant, but most mechanized mines have their own washing plants.
The kanasé custom
Almost inevitably, some gems escape capture and are carried away to the tailings. According to local custom, tailings may be searched by anyone, with all stones found becoming property of the finder. Under the British Company, however, this was later restricted to women only; any man who so much as bent down to touch a stone on the ground, unless a worker or license holder, was subject to imprisonment. Thus, today is largely women and children who mine in this way. They are termed kanasé ma (tailings women).
This custom has resulted in the wholesale theft of large numbers of stones, as well as providing a convenient method for the disposal of stolen goods. The way it works is thus: a dishonest workman may catch sight of a stone. He then passes it secretly to a nearby kanasé woman or tells her where to search for it. Moments later, there is a shout of joy as the woman has just "uncovered" a stone which, by custom, is hers to keep. The British Company went to great lengths to prevent the theft of stones, enclosing the sorting areas, requiring workers to wear steel masks so that stones could not be swallowed, etc. However, all this was to no avail because of the kanasé custom.
The role of brokers is important, both at Mogok and further north at the Hpakan jade mines. Each dealer employs them to act as his eyes and ears.
Brokers not only assist in valuations and sales, but also obtain intelligence about what valuable stones have been recently mined, who the owners are, and, just as importantly, who the stones are being offered to and the prices bid. Owners of valuable stones do their best to keep details secret, for if a piece is bid upon, when the spies of other dealers learn of the bid, no one will offer more. In other words, if one dealer believes it is worth only 50,000 Kyat, then why offer more?
This situation results in purchases taking place in a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere as both buyer and seller seek to conceal their activities. Stolen stones in particular may be offered at remote jungle rendezvous', sometimes in the dead of the night with only a hand torch as illumination. Legitimate goods may also be offered in this way, being represented as stolen in the hope that this would increase the buyer's feeling that he is getting a steal of a deal.
Mogok's gem markets
A number of gem markets operate in the Mogok area, each specializing in a particular type of stone. One of the most interesting is the late-afternoon market at Myintada, where colorfully-clad women can be seen haggling over all kinds of small rough rubies. Each broker is equipped with the tools of the trade – a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off, a small brass plate upon which the stones are placed, and, most importantly, a keen eye.
Burmese rubies compared
Until the discoveries in Vietnam in the late 1980's, Burmese rubies were without peer. Other sources, such as Kenya and Afghanistan, produced the occasional stone which could stand with Burma's best, but these were exception. In historic terms, Mogok rubies are in a class by themselves.
Let it glow
The color of a fine Mogok ruby is due to a combination of two factors. First, the best stones have high color intensity. This results from a mixture of the slightly bluish red body color and the purer red fluorescent emission.
Due to one of those glorious accidents of nature, ruby has both a red body color and red fluorescence. Furthermore, most rubies will actually fluoresce to visible light. This red fluorescence is one of the keys to a fine ruby's appearance, for it covers up the dark areas of the stone caused by extinction from cutting. Thai/Cambodian rubies possess a purer red body color,  but lack the strong fluorescence. In Thai/Cambodian rubies, where light is properly reflected off pavilion facets (brilliance), the color is good. However, where facets are cut too steep, light exits through the side instead of returning to the eye, creating darker areas (extinction). All stones possess this extinction to a certain degree, but in fine Burmese rubies, the strong crimson fluorescence masks it. The best Mogok stones actually glow red and appear as though Mother Nature brushed a broad swath of fluorescent red paint across the face of the stone. This is the carbuncle of the ancients, a term derived from the glowing embers of a fire.
Smooth as silk
The second factor in the Burmese ruby quality equation is something gemologists call "silk." Silk refers to tiny needle inclusions which scatter light onto facets that would otherwise be extinct. This gives the color a velvety softness, as well as spreading it across a greater part of the gem's face. Thai/Cambodian rubies contain no rutile silk, and thus possess more extinction. But too much silk is not a good thing. The best rubies have just a trace of extremely fine silk scattered throughout.
In actuality, rubies from most sources possess strong red fluorescence and silk similar to those from Burma, with the Thai/Cambodian rubies being the exception. However, those from Sri Lanka are generally too pale in color, while with other sources, such as Kenya, Pakistan and Afghanistan, material clean enough for faceting is rare. Thus the combination of fine color (body color plus fluorescence) and facetable material (i.e., internally clean) has put the Burmese ruby squarely atop the crimson mountain. Some old-timers consider Burma to be not just the best source, but the only source of stones fit to be called ruby. When one considers that today probably 90% or more of newly-mined rubies owe a good measure of their clarity and color to heat treatment, this statement does not seem so outlandish (unfortunately, most Burmese rubies are today also heat treated).
Pigeon's blood: Chasing the elusive Burmese bird
The Burmese term for ruby is padamya ('plenty of mercury'). Other terms for ruby are derived from the word for the seeds of the pomegranate fruit. 
Traditionally, the Burmese have referred to the finest hue of ruby as "pigeon's blood" (ko-twe), a term which may be of Chinese or Arab origin. Witness the following from the Arab, al-Akfani, who described thus the top variety of ruby: Rummani has the colour of the fresh seed of pomegranate or of a drop of blood (drawn from an artery) on a highly polished silver plate. al-Akfani, ca. 1348 AD. Some have compared this color to the center of a live pigeon's eye. Halford-Watkins described it as a rich crimson without trace of blue overtones. Others have defined this still further as the color of the first two drops of blood from the nose of a freshly slain Burmese pigeon. But the pièce de résistance of pigeon's-blood research has to be that of James Nelson, who finally put the question to rest:
In an attempt to seek a more quantitative description for this mysterious red colour known only to hunters and the few fortunate owners of the best Burmese rubies, the author sought the help of the London Zoo. Their Research Department were quick to oblige and sent a specimen of fresh, lysed, aerated, pigeon's blood. A sample was promptly spectrophotometered…. The Burmese bird can at last be safely removed from the realms of gemmology and consigned back to ornithology.
James B. Nelson, 1985, Journal of Gemmology
After that, the only question remaining is whether or not "spectrophotometered" is a genuine English verb.
Color preferences do change with time. The preferred color today is not necessarily that of a hundred, or even fifty, years ago. In my experience, the color most coveted today is that akin to a red traffic signal or stoplight. It is a glowing red color, due to the strong red fluorescence of Burmese rubies, and is unequalled elsewhere in the world of gemstones. Thai/Cambodian rubies may possess a purer red body color, but the lack of red fluorescence and silk leaves them dull by comparison. It must be stressed that the true pigeon's-blood red is extremely rare, more a color of the mind than the material world. One Burmese trader expressed it best when he said: "…asking to see the pigeon's blood is like asking to see the face of God."
The second-best color in Burma is termed "rabbit's blood," or yeong-twe. It is a slightly darker, more bluish red. Third best is a deep hot pink termed bho-kyaik. This was the favorite color of the famous Mogok gem dealer, A.C.D. Pain. The literal meaning of bho-kyaik is "preference of the British."
Fourth-best is a light pink color termed leh-kow-seet (literally 'bracelet-quality' ruby). At the bottom of the ruby scale is the dark red color termed ka-la-ngoh. This has an interesting derivation for it means literally either "crying-Indian quality" or "even an Indian would cry," so termed because it was even darker than an Indian's skin. Most dark rubies were sold in Bombay or Madras, India. Ka-la-ngoh stones were said to be so dark that even Indians would cry out in despair when confronted with this quality.
Mogok: Looking ahead
What is it that draws us to ruby? Daw Nann Gyi Taung, above Burma's valley of rubies, is perhaps a fitting place to sit and ponder that question. For hundreds of years, the finest rubies the earth has ever seen have been taken from the soil beneath this mountain. Countless fortunes have been made, but for some, the crimson stones have brought only grief.
In upcountry Burma, tin roofs are a sign of prosperity. Below Daw Nann Gyi Taung, a veritable carpet of tin sprawls across the valley. As I gaze into that valley, and across the jungled hills of the Shan State, thunderheads build on the horizon, signaling the beginning of yet another storm. Before long, the heavens are hammering out a steady rat-a-tat-tat drumbeat on the valley's tin roofs. Once again, it is raining in Rubyland. And everything is fine. For the first time in many decades, tomorrow looks better than today.
What is it that draws us to ruby? Like so many others seekers before me, I had come to this remote valley looking for the red stone, trying to get a little closer to this magnificent gem, perhaps to find an answer to that question. And it was this that was on my mind as the rain pounded down around me and I climbed down off Daw Nann Gyi Taung, deep in thought. Then, something caught my eye. The rain had just uncovered a flash of crimson. And in that one instant I found my answer. There on the ground before me lay a tiny fragment – all of creation bundled up into one tiny pebble. I was home. My pilgrimage was at an end. I had just seen the face of God.
After dreaming about it for years, in April 1996 I finally made it to Mogok and this piece is the result. It was first published, in slightly butchered form, in Colored Stone (1996: Renaissance in Rubyland, Vol. 9, No. 6, Nov.-Dec., pp. 29–33) and Momentum magazines (1996, Vol. 4, No. 13, Dec. 1996–Feb. 1997, pp. 18–21).
Page updated 7 March, 2013
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