A World Tour of Color

The Mogok Mine is 150 kilometers from the old Burmese capital of Mandalay, a 10- to 20-hour drive on an unpaved road. But Edward Boehm has been there, and he regaled an audience at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas with some of his experiences traveling there and elsewhere.

Boehm, the grandson of the late Dr. Eduard Gübelin, is a geologist, gemologist, and owner of JOEB Enterprises and Laboratory Services in Solana Beach, Calif., specializing in high-end and collectable gems. Boehm highlighted his trips to Burma, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Colombia, focusing on mining conditions, gemstones, and politics.

Much of the mining in Mogok is alluvial, that is, surface digging of ancient riverbeds to find gem concentrate of ruby and sapphire. Lesser tunneling into marble calcite produces magnificent spinel, along with classic Burmese sapphires and rubies.

Artisanal mining—locals who dig straight down and tunnel out in all directions—is very efficient and important to the local economy. The lack of electricity, flashlights, and shoes would seem to indicate harsh conditions, but Boehm said that using oil lamps is a reminder of what has been forgotten: Oil is available and lasts longer than battery-driven lights, and if the lamp goes out, the miner knows oxygen in the hole is in short supply. Miners go barefoot because they believe gems are a gift from God, so going without shoes is a sign of respect.

Namya, 315 kilometers north of Mogok, is the new ruby and spinel mining site. Because the color of its stones is so good, very few are enhanced.

Sri Lanka gem cutting has improved immensely, Boehm noted. While mining is still important, imports from Madagascar to Sri Lanka have become even more important than mining.

Madagascar, the large island off the coast of Mozambique, was once connected to the African continent. Thus, gems found on the continent are also found on the island, including tsavorite. Madagascar produces garnets, sapphires, rubies, chrysoberyls including alexandrites, sphenes, and a multitude of other gem materials. Boehm touched on the relatively new pezzottaite, pink beryl.

In Tanzania—in addition to tanzanite—there are tsavorites and other garnets, a new find of moonstones, and sunstones with hematite inclusions.

Boehm toured Colombian emerald mines with Ron Ringsrud, emerald expert from California and Bogotá. Like most Third World countries, Colombia is becoming more accessible by road and more connected by cell phone. When an emerald crystal is found in Cosquez, one cell-phone call to Bogotá will draw numerous dealers within a half day. Boehm predicts this will not only get goods into the market quicker but also increase competition, which should drive prices upward.

Caveat: If you travel to a mining area, don’t buy there. Unless you know how to buy rough, buy from dealers who know the area. They’ve learned how to buy right by making big, expensive mistakes, said Boehm. That’s a learning curve most jewelers don’t need to experience.