Attributed to a Burmese trader by US gemologist Richard W. Hughes, this quote hints at the rarity of the world’s highest quality rubies. Pigeon-blood rubies are found in only a handful of places in the world, the combination of rich red, blue and violet making them some of the most exquisite and expensive gems on the planet.
In fact, the ten most expensive rubies sold in auctions worldwide between 2011 and 2015, with a combined value of more than $85 million USD, all came from Myanmar - five of them pigeon’s blood rubies from Mogok in Mandalay Division. Mong Hsu in Shan State also mines extremely high-quality stones and between them these two sites produce almost 90% of the world's rubies. Which begs the question: Where does all the money go?
In Loi Tai Leng, the mountainous headquarters of the Shan State Army South (SSA-S) on the Thai-Myanmar border, small factories cut gemstones mined in Shan State. SSA-N and SSA-S are the military wings of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) respectively, and these groups, as well as others in this troubled area of Myanmar, profit from the ruby industry through trade, transportation and taxation.
It's late in the evening after hours on the steep, uneven mountain road. Although it is late April the weather is cold and a fierce storm rages. A giant crossing the mountains, tearing at the camp outside.
There is a monastery on the mountaintop and small houses populate the hillside. Monks and novices walk collecting alms. This community was born of ruby mining decades ago– in more prosperous times there were hundreds of thousands of people living here, but although there are still rubies to be found the population is now a fraction of that number.
Tubes are filled with potassium nitrate to make explosives and are used to find a trace of rubies in the walls of the mine which can then be extracted in small pieces. After that the ruby-filled rocks are transferred to the surface for female workers to complete the extraction process.
Every day before going down into the mine workers pay respect to guardian spirits for their protection. There is still strong belief in these sacred spirits, and they should not be angered for fear of accidents befalling the miners.
The monk also tells us that “A small token of rubies go to Yangon officially, to Nay Pyi Taw, and to pay the tax at the emporium, but by smuggling to Thailand from Mong Hsu via Tachileik 90% leaves the country illegally.”
In conversation with a gems factory manager at Loi Tai Leng about the ruby trade, we are told that the SSA-N “has been trading rubies for a long time, but not as a registered business.This is why the Wan Hai headquarters is perfectly positioned. They have a big advantage over the Burmese in trading rubies and controlling the routes in Mong Hsu, but the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) is still controlling most of the ruby trade and the bulk of money goes directly to them from Mogok.” In Mogok it is only possible to carry out large-scale mining by entering into a joint venture with the government.