Dealers old enough to remember the golden age nearly 30 years back when Burma ruby was so plentiful there was no need to sell any other variety have had to make a painful peace with stones from substitute sources, mainly Thailand and, more recently, East Africa.
Those too young to remember are more skeptical. Were the best Burma rubies of yesteryear really so superior? Or were they, like so many other bygones, an over-sentimentalized fantasy?
To decide which, Modern Jeweler’s yuppie-generation gem market specialist spent a couple days making cold-eyed comparisons of better-to-fine classification Burma and Thai rubies, ranging from melee to 5-carat sizes.
His conclusion was, as distinguished New York lapidary Reggie Miller, Reginald C. Miller Inc., assured him it would be, “that Burma ruby has no peer.” Despite color-blistering from heat treatment, Thai rubies generally flunk side-by-side savourings with Burma goods.
Burma ruby’s vast aesthetic edge became most apparent during a visual onslaught in the office of Maidi and Co., New York. There one of the firm’s principals, Rapheal Maidi, brought out box after box of better-to-fine, Burmese and Thai material for our man’s inspection. Able to pit scores of Burma and Thai stones against each other, he could see amazing differences in color and appearance.
Although difficult to put into words, the final difference came down to “sex appeal.” For the most part, the Burma stones had a softer, slightly pinker red with lighter tones. The Thai stones, by comparison, seemed harder in color, darker in tone and prone to annoying grays and browns.
Admittedly, all of this is subjective. Quite possibly, some of the stones designated “Burmese” hailed from the increasingly important ruby belt running across adjoining Afghanistan and Pakistan. Others may have been pretenders from Kenya, Tanzania and even Thailand itself. Nevertheless, the overall experience made as profound an impression as any in the editor’s many years of jewelry market coverage.
The Fluorescence Factor
If no longer entirely synonymous with a specific origin, the term “Burma” is still synonymous with ideal beauty in a ruby. Whether a rich solemn intricate red called “pigeon’s blood” or a more bubbly pinkish color called “cherry red,” Burma rubies at their best have a distinctive glow, especially in broad daylight. This glow, explains eminent gemologist Robert Crowningshield of the Gemological Institute of America, Santa Monica, Calif., is the direct result of fluorescence. When fluorescent stones are struck by ultraviolet rays, a strong component of sunlight, they excite atoms within. This reaction adds an extra “oomph.”
Thai rubies almost always lack the vibrancy of their Burma brethren. They are cursed, Crowningshield continues, with the presence of iron, a trace element that affects color for the worse by adding purple and brown, all the while inhibiting fluorescence. Heating ruby is enough to alter the state of the iron and remove some of the purple and brown. But the process doesn’t significantly boost fluorescence. Heated Thai rubies still lack what one dealer calls “jazz.”
To a generation reared on Thai ruby, however, there is no way to appreciate this missing ingredient. Hard to define unless seen, it makes it even harder to justify the rather hefty price differentials between Burma and Thai rubies. Today, for instance, a very fine 3-carat unheated Burma ruby can command around $30,000 per carat wholesale. Its Thai counterpart will be lucky to fetch one-third.
Thankfully, Burma/Thai price differentials narrow as stones get smaller. Very fine all-natural 1-carat Burma rubies currently wholesale for roughly 50% more than very fine 1-carat Thai stones. With fine melee, the Burma premium dwindles to 25%. Considering the desperate disproportion between supplies of Thai and Burma stones, this makes Burmese goods a bargain.
Give My Regards to Mogok
Ever since Burma’s socialist government sealed off the country in 1962, Burma ruby has been an endangered species. But even before its borders closed, mining in the country’s principal gem tract at Mogok, in north-central Burma, was in sharp decline.
Miller, one of the few American gem dealers alive today to have ever visited Mogok, remembers that as of his last visit in 1960 miners were already re-working the tailings of combusted-over deposits. “The future of supply was open to question before Burma became off bounds,” he says.
This isn’t to say that mining has ceased. It is believed to continue, but only in a token manner. Most of what the West sees in the way of “new” Burma rubies, whether those mostly mediocre stones offered at once-a-year gem auctions in Rangoon or the modicum of far finer pieces smuggled into neighboring Thailand, are probably hoarded goods. The same goes for the majority of Burma rubies sold in major Asian gem centers such as India, Hong Kong and Singapore. In Europe and America, the market is almost entirely dependent on vintage goods, many from estates.
Given the profusion of heat-treated Burma pretenders, authentication of origin has become as important to gem dealers as authentication of authorship is to art dealers. The job of verifying Burmese origin is difficult, often involving intricate microscope scrutiny, as well as painstaking historical research. Few in the profession of gemology are trained for this work. And the field of gemstone origin authentication is in its infancy, presently dominated by two labs, New York’s American Gemological Laboratories and Zurich’s Gübelin Laboratory, whose findings sometimes conflict.
Since an origin pedigree is now a prerequisite to sale of Burma rubies in the auction and connoisseur markets, sellers will often submit stones to both labs and use the authentication certificate of whichever lab concludes the stone is from Burma. At present, the Gübelin lab in Switzerland is the more well-known and preferred. But that doesn’t necessarily mean its work is better. To the contrary, American Gemological Laboratories has irked some dealers because it insists on noting whether or not stones, even those from Burma, are heat-treated—a reality for almost all modern-mined rubies. Many in the trade believe that this information should be excluded from origin reports, even though it is clearly required by Federal Trade Commission rules for the jewelry industry. In any case, indications of heat treatment on an origin certificate for a Burma ruby can prevent it from receiving as much per carat as a stone from the same place that the laboratory has validated as all-natural.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 7.01-carat Burma ruby shown in the header image is courtesy of Jan Goodman, San Francisco.