Pigeon Blood: Burmese Rubies

Amy Lin of Saffronart explores the significance of rubies from Burma (Myanmar) 

Auction of Fine Jewels & Watches (OCT 30-31, 2012)

New York: Gleaming red with a fiery core, rubies have commanded the attention of kings and nobles throughout the centuries, who believed in the stone’s power to harbor fortune, passion, and vitality. The Burmese (Myanmar) mines have historically been the best source for rubies and produced some of the finest rubies in the world.

In our current Auction of Fine Jewels & Watches, we feature a magnificent ruby and diamond three stone ring. This historical piece dates back to c. 1915, and is set with a fine ruby originating from Burma. The cushion-cut ruby weighs 3.10 carats, and is flanked by an old-cut diamond on each side, and mounted in a gold band.

The ruby is part of the mineral corundum family. Pure corundum is colorless and it is actually traces of aluminum oxide impurities in it that give it brilliant colors. While most corundum are simply sapphires, rubies also contain chromium that gives them a scarlet color. Rubies range from transparent to opaque in color, with brighter gems containing more traces of chromium. Similar to sapphires, rubies score a 9 on Moh’s Hardness Scale, making them second in resilience behind diamonds.

Deep in the mountains of Burma, the Mogok (old) and Mong Hsu (new) mines have produced some of the most brilliant gemstones in the world. Rubies from the Mogok Valley tend to be magenta in color like the one set in this ruby and diamond ring. Mong Hsu rubies on the other hand have bluish hues that often have to be treated with heat. One of the finest examples is the Carmen Lucia Ruby discovered in Mogok around the 1930s, and currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. Weighing 23.10 carats, the gem glows a deep scarlet, a color nicknamed “pigeon’s blood” by the Burmese people.

Other legendary gems are the Nga Mauk and Kallahpyan rubies. Legend has it that these gems were once part of a 560 carat ruby found in the Mogok mines during the mid 19thcentury. One was presented to King Mindon Min, while the other was secretly sold off in Calcutta. When the King found out that he’d been deceived, he demanded the other half returned and ordered the villagers to be burned alive as punishment. Following the British government’s annexation of Upper Burma in 1885, the fate of these two gems remains unknown.

The Carmen Lucia Ruby
Image Credit: http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/images/ruby/

In recent decades, the Burmese mines have faced several trials and tribulations. The miners work in risky and brutish conditions while most of the profits from the work go directly to the military junta that runs the nation. Human rights and political activists have called for a ban on Burmese rubies. In response, the International Colored Gemstone Association in 2007 urged its members to stop buying rubies from its government sources and the US enforced a ban on importing Burmese rubies. While conditions in Burma are slowly improving, Burmese rubies still remain a deeply contested issue.