Digging in the Dirt
The Ruby Mines of Mogok
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Rubies – their very name conjures up images of fabulous wealth, and priceless jewellery adorning the necks and fingers of the rich and famous.
Their glowing deep red hues make them among the most coveted and valuable of all the world’s gemstones.
But this glamorous façade hides a different story - the suffering of miners who toil under harsh conditions to unearth these beautiful stones.
Their only incentive is the hope of one day stumbling across the find of a lifetime that will make them rich themselves.
The finest rubies in the world come from Burma, and in particular from the Mogok Stone Tract - a high valley some 200 km north of Mandalay. The stones produced here possess the most sought-after rich red colours, and a warm fluorescence that makes them appear to glow.
The ideal shade, known locally as “pigeon’s blood”, is similar to that of a red traffic signal.
It isn’t known how long rubies have been mined in Mogok, but the region’s wealth was already known when the first Europeans visited in the 15th Century. Early Burmese kings decreed that all stones above a certain size were the property of the crown. Failure to hand them over was punishable by death. Fear of this harsh law meant that by the time the British annexed Upper Burma in 1885, much of the local population had fled. Local mining interests were taken over by the British, but they never adapted to local culture, and their mining company eventually went bankrupt.
The mines returned to Burmese hands following independence in 1948 and were nationalised after the military coup of 1962. Private ownership was banned for three decades, but restrictions were loosened in the 1990s. Large companies moved in, but many small mines are now privately run.
The valley has a population of around 40,000, most of whom work in the industry. An army of cutters and polishers transform the red stones into precious jewels, in a process that can take months. Cut gems are bought and sold in local markets, and the sound of brokers haggling over prices is heard everywhere.
Science and myth have different ideas about the ruby’s origins. According to legend, the ancient land of northern Burma was inhabited only by wild animals and birds. A giant eagle one day flew over Mogok valley and spotted a large red object on the ground. Thinking it meat, the eagle swooped to pick it up, but couldn’t grab it with its claws. Recognising it as a stone forged from the blood and fire of the earth itself, it left it in the valley. This was the world’s first ruby.
The geological explanation is less poetic, the rubies actually formed in the limestone mountains around Mogok over millions of years. The mountains are slowly releasing their treasure as the limestone is dissolved by the area’s substantial rainfall – over three metres per year – and the stones wash into the valley below.
Rubies are retrieved in several ways, using mining techniques that have remained unchanged for generations.
A mass of tunnels criss-cross the land under the valley, some stretching for kilometres. Some stones are taken from natural fissures in the rock.
Other mines are no more than open pits, worked with little or no machinery. These fill quickly with water, which must be pumped out for safety. In deeper pits, workers are lowered in by rope. Sometimes they dangle above the ground in makeshift harnesses, chipping away at the walls, and collecting their booty in wicker baskets.
For many, finding rubies means sifting through the tonnes of red mud and gravel, known locally as byon. In streams, people pan for gems in scenes similar to the American Gold Rush of the 19th Century.
Whatever the method, it is dirty and exhausting work, and almost everyone emerges from their workplace tired and coated in mud. Conditions are tough, and accidents common. Workers are sometimes drowned by flash floods, or buried alive by tunnel collapses, particularly during the rainy season. Bandits have also spotted the potential for easy money, and violent robberies and murders happen on a regular basis.
Despite the risks, however, the workers continue their trade just as their parents did, and their children probably will. There is one thing that drives them on. Finds of gems larger than a cherry stone are very rare - the majority are far smaller - but their value is enormous. The people of Mogok know this, and share a dream that their fortune is just waiting to be found, in the form of a tiny red stone.