Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Red planet

From southeast Asia to Africa and beyond, ruby sources have been producing their globally coveted treasures for millennia.

By Diana Jarrett

Rubies have been revered since antiquity — particularly in Asia, where they were traded along China’s Northern Silk Road as early as 200 BCE. On that route — the trackway for trade and cultural exchange at the time — Chinese noblemen adorned their armor with rubies, believing the ruddy gems would grant them protection. Places like Thailand, Colombia, India, Afghanistan, Namibia and Brazil also brought these stones to the market.

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is another locale that has ancient ties to ruby; 13th-century explorer Marco Polo reported seeing a flawless specimen the size of a man’s arm there — though we’ll never know if it was a ruby or another red stone, since people identified gems solely by color in those days. Today, the Sri Lankan town of Ratnapura, known as the “City of Gems,” remains a prominent gemstone-producing center, selling sapphires and rubies. This hub has allowed the country to continue forging a remarkable domestic and export business.

Sri Lankan gem dealer Zion da Silva affirms the nation’s roots in the ruby trade, though he says buyers favor colors closer to Burmese stones. “Sri Lankan rubies are more inclined to have pinkish-purple undertones,” explains the owner of Mount Zion Gems & Jewellery. “Most buyers prefer the Burmese ruby for its pigeon blood hues.”

There’s something special behind that hypnotic hue, agrees Naveet Nagpal, head designer and president of jeweler Omi Privé. “Burmese rubies are historically the best and most beautiful due to their remarkable fluorescence, making them glow. Chromium is responsible for the phenomenon, as [is] the absence of iron.”

Recently, large deposits of ruby and pink sapphire were uncovered in Greenland. Local company Greenland Ruby began official operations in 2017, with expectations of producing at least a decade’s worth of gem-quality stones. “Greenland rubies can be beautiful in their own right, but the quality can’t be compared to Burmese or African ruby,” says Nagpal.

Myanmar: Ups and downs

Myanmar (Burma) has dominated the world’s ruby supply since about 600 CE. Its Mogok area remained the preeminent source of Burmese production until its alluvial deposits dwindled several decades ago. Then, in the 1990s, the country’s Mong Hsu region began production, though dealers say those stones lack the sumptuous, fiery red of classic Burmese specimens. Now, the military coup in Myanmar after last fall’s elections has affected the market, according to traders.

“The US Department of Treasury placed military-controlled mining operations [in Myanmar] under sanctions this spring,” relates Glenn Preus, president of wholesaler Glenn Preus in Honolulu, Hawaii. “While specific gems are not banned, the military-controlled mining entities that regulate the overwhelming majority of ruby mining and disposition through government-sponsored auctions are.” And while there are other gem-sourcing avenues that bypass the military, says Preus, these are boutique operations that cannot supply consistent quantities.

Lewis Allen, owner of Crown Color in Bangkok, Thailand, has also noted the repercussions of recent events. “The combination of the Covid-19 lockdown in Burma [and] the political situation has stopped the flow of Burmese goods here on the Bangkok market. Also, the US sanctions against the Burmese government-connected mining enterprises have pushed many American and European jewelry companies toward purchasing Mozambique rubies.” The result, he says, has been “a big increase in prices for fine Mozambique rubies in the last six months.”

Mozambique: Clarity and color

Indeed, with fewer Burmese goods available, most dealers are turning to Mozambique to fill their orders now, according to wholesaler Alan Hackman, partner at Intercolor USA. “Mozambique ruby is twice as clean and displays a nice cherry-red hue for a fraction of the price of Burmese.”

Many rubies from Mozambique and other areas like Tanzania and Madagascar tend to have purple and/or orange secondary colors, and tend to be overly dark due to their higher iron content, Nagpal points out. But there are exceptions, he says, including “some beautiful rubies we’ve seen from Mozambique and other African deposits. These are rare and highly sought after in the market, especially in larger sizes.”

The discovery of Mozambique ruby in 2009 was fortuitous, as this was around when the supply of high-quality Burmese goods started to drop. Mozambique’s economy was already heavily reliant on its agricultural and mineral resources, and global suppliers have been following each deposit the country unearths.

In 2018, reports emerged of human rights abuses near the Montepuez ruby mine, leading some buyers to avoid acquiring Mozambican rubies. Owner Gemfields reached a settlement in 2019 without admitting liability, and also set up an independent grievance system so community members could lodge complaints in the future.

Today, Mozambican ruby is in high demand for both its clarity and color. Those clean crystals hold a magnetic draw for dealers. They generally exhibit purplish-red to red hues, with some displaying an orangish tint. Color intensity runs from a light pink to a deep red — though pale pink stones with less than 0.5% chromium are deemed pink sapphires. Both gems are types of corundum, but ruby’s chromium content is higher.

Ground rules

For his part, Hackman offers both Burmese and Mozambican goods. Today’s “mini-ban on Burmese ruby is not the same as before,” he says, referring to the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008. The US bill, which expired in 2016, imposed sanctions on importing gemstones from the Asian country.

Today, maybe one out of 500 rubies in Hackman’s stock are Burmese, because some clients insist on them. Country of origin is important to the Asian market, and the European market isn’t far behind in that regard, he explains. “It’s just slowly becoming important in the US. Asian clients are stuck on origin; US clients, not so much.”

Country of origin is key for Preus as well. “The gemstone is representing all of the geological advantages from that region,” he says. “Attributes such as purity of growth at the atomic (crystal) level, fluorescence, complexity and desirability of undertones and secondary colors become paramount.”

The growing conditions in the earth are different from country to country, he adds. “The high chromium content in Myanmar ruby, for example, helps cause many of the aforementioned attributes, and is sorely missing from ruby mined in Mozambique, Greenland or Madagascar.”

That’s why “historically, the coveted chromium-rich rubies from Myanmar [have been] the market’s first choice,” he says. “Although [they were] affected by US sanctions from the Tom Lantos bill...the rest of the world still acquired these ultra-rare gems [during that time], thus keeping prices for natural, untreated Myanmar ruby out of reach for most US jewelers.”

That said, even US jewelers can acquire Burmese goods if they were provably purchased outside of the two sanction periods.

Since different traders cater to different clients, the checklist of desirable ruby traits can vary.

“Color is strictly a personal taste,” says Hackman, “and some clients still want that fire-engine-red Burmese color.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - July 2021. To subscribe click here.

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