If you were paying attention at last month’s Tucson gem shows, you probably noticed rubies from Myanmar—which I’ll call Burma for the purposes of this post because that’s how the trade still refers to it—are next to impossible to find.
There are a couple reasons for the dearth of supply. Not only is there a lack of production in the Mogok and Mong Hsu regions of Burma, but—for buyers in the United States—there’s also an embargo: the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 made it illegal to import rubies and jadeite from Burma. The JADE Act of 2008 further strengthened that prohibition. Despite the recent easing of sanctions against Burma, the gem embargo remains in place.
I’ve always been a sucker for the gem, and recently did a ton of research on the ruby market that yielded some interesting trivia:
1. Unheated Burmese rubies are going for nearly $1 million per carat on the auction block.
Limited supply combined with high demand—especially from dealers in China, where the color red is highly sought after—has turned the market for Burmese stones (especially the unheated variety) into a free for all. Take the Graff Ruby, an unheated 8.62 ct. cushion-shaped gem that sold for $8,600,410 at Sotheby’s Geneva in November, setting a world auction record for a ruby. Here’s what the London-based diamantaire Laurence Graff had to say about his prize stone:
“The Graff Ruby has a life and legacy that extends beyond us all. When you buy such a stone, you are not just a trader; you are a collector and guardian while you own it.”
2. The reason rubies from Burma are so sought after—besides the legendary source—is that they often boast a super-charged fluorescence.
Like their sister gems, spinels, rubies from Burma have a strong fluorescence, a consequence of their low iron content. “If you shine a strong light on them, they have a red body color but they will also fluoresce red, super-charging the color,” says gemologist Richard W. Hughes, author of Ruby & Sapphire: A Collector’s Guide.
“It’s a very dramatic effect,” Hughes says. “If you have access to a blue or green laser pointer, you know there’s no red light going in and yet the stone will go red. That’s why in ancient times, people thought there was a fire burning in the stone.”
3. “Pigeon’s blood” rubies are most coveted, but the next best color is “rabbit’s blood.”
In Burmese gem trading nomenclature, the term used to describe the best rubies is “pigeon’s blood red.” According to Hughes, J.F. Halford-Watkins, a Brit who lived in Mogok in the 1920s and ’30s, and worked for a British ruby mining company, is the most authoritative source on the origin of the term. “He claims it’s probably of Chinese origin,” Hughes says. “But, literally, nobody knows.”
“But the No. 2 color in Burmese nomenclature is called ‘rabbit’s blood’—and that’s a slightly darker red,” Hughes said.
Even more interesting is another color term of arcane Burmese origin: “The crying Indian”—named that because Indian dealers of yore tended to buy darker rubies, “but this color was so dark that even the Indians would cry when they’d see it,” says Hughes.
4. The Montepuez ruby deposit in Mozambique is being hailed as the biggest ruby find in history.
A massive ruby find was discovered in northern Mozambique in 2009. The deposit, known as Montepuez, is so rich that in 2011, it attracted the attention of Gemfields, the London-based mining company that owns a stake in the Kagem emerald mine in Zambia, and promotes its gems as ethically and responsibly sourced.
CEO Ian Harebottle said the the mine has at least a 50-year lifespan and is producing big stones—including a 40-ct. piece of rough called the Rhino Ruby that Gemfields sold in December. “So we are producing 40 carat in rough right down to stones 2 to 3 mm in diameter, which would be ¼ ct. in rough and end up as 2-to-3-to-5 pointers in polished,” he says.
Hughes has even more good things to say about the deposit: “We’ve never seen as much fine ruby as has been found in Mozambique in the history of mankind.”
5. If you’re going to Baselworld and you like rubies, you’re in for a treat.
If you’re going to Baselworld March 19–26, take a moment to appreciate what the Danish brand Georg Jensen is doing (but that’s all I can say for now!). Also, don’t fail to check out collections from Sutra and Amrapali, two longtime supporters of Mozambican rubies.
6. Lead glass–filled rubies are considered a manufactured product.
JCK senior editor Jennifer Heebner covered lead glass–filled rubies extensively in a stellar two-part series in our May 2012 and June 2012 issues. But the information bears repeating: In 2004, low-grade ruby from Mozambique, Madagascar, and India entered the marketplace dressed up with an insidious new treatment: Lead glass is injected into the fissures of the worst-quality rubies imaginable, and makes the stones super fragile and unstable (so much so that common solvents—like lemon juice!—can damage the stone).
“We call it a manufactured product,” says Shane McClure, director of West Coast identification services for GIA. “It’s an unusual step for us. It’s not really a composite; this stuff starts out as one piece and has to be treated to keep it that way. In the end, this wouldn’t be what it is except for the hand of man changing it so it could be faceted, so, really, it’s manufactured, and is a combination of ruby and lead glass.”
Buyers should be on the lookout for orange and blue flashes from the fractures, as well as flattened glass bubbles, McClure says. “With a little bit of experience, you can learn to recognize this material without too much trouble,” he adds. “If somebody is selling ruby and they say it’s ‘filled,’ they’re talking about lead glass–filled, even if they don’t say that. They don’t call anything else ‘filled ruby.’”
7. The next new source of rubies is—wait for it—Greenland.
As unlikely as it sounds, Greenland is shaping up to be the trade’s next big source of rubies. True North Gems has been mining a deposit on the southwest coast of the island since 2005 and recently named Hayley Henning vice president of marketing and development. The goods, which are said to come on the smaller side but in a wide range of colors, from pink sapphires to red rubies, should be on the market by the end of this year, says True North Gems president and CEO Nick Houghton.
“And we can supply on a consistent basis,” Houghton says. “That’s the beauty of a hard rock deposit.”
Courtesy True North Gems
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on March 11 to reflect a correction to the name of the British miner who is the most authoritative source on the origin of the term “pigeon’s blood.” His name is J.F. Halford-Watkins, not Alfred Watkins.