Burma, The Mineral Utopia - Part 3
Introduction by The Lapidary Journal
We present herewith the third and concluding installment in a three-part series on Burma and its gem mines by one of America’s leading gem authorities, internationally known for his work in the coloring of diamonds by cyclotronic bombardment. The author has just returned from another extensive gem buying trip in Burma and his gem travels have taken him all over the world many times. Ehrmann was the co-author with Herbert P. Whitlock, in the writing of the book The Story of Jade.
The Amber Mines
Burmese amber was highly prized by the Chinese even before the beginning of the Christian era. Burmese amber is different from amber extracted in the Baltic Sea in East Prussia. The Burmese type is a golden color with a beautiful bluish streak through it and is strongly fluorescent even in ordinary sunlight. It is also purer, harder, and tougher than the Prussian amber, thus making it excellent material for cutting and carving into figures, snuff bottles, vases and various Chinese carved objets d’art. The only other occurrence of amber of similar quality is in Sicily; this amber possesses the same fluorescent phenomenon.
Amber occurs in the lower tertiaries, which consist of finely bedded dark schists, blue shale and sandstone, the shales being generally predominant. In some places the two are alternately interbedded with a few layers of limestone conglomerate. Sometimes sandstone of various shades of blue and pink are almost laminated, and in places contain shaly concretions which vary in diameter from one to several inches. Generally, the sandstone and shale bear carbonaceous impressions; sometimes, these rocks contain very thin coal seams in which amber is imbedded in the form of concretions. Because of the soft nature of the shale and sandstone, few good exposures are seen on the surface.
Amber mines are located in the northern-most section of Burma and extend in a straight line to the border of Assam, through Myitkyina to the Yunan border. Hukawang [aka Hukawng] Valley, comprising the villages of Maingkwan and Kamaung, is the chief source. In most mines, amber occurs in pockets embedded in blue sandstone or dark-blue shale with a fine coal seam. The presence of coal seams is a favorable sign for the occurrence of good amber. Amber usually occurs in elliptical pieces and occasionally in block-like forms. The best amber is found at a depth of about thirty-five to fifty feet, very seldom in large blocks, the average size being that of a normal closed fist.
The method of mining amber is as primitive as that of mining jade. The mine is a well-like affair about four feet square and descends to a maximum depth of approximately fifty feet. Four miners work in each pit. Two dig underground with a hoe. The other two haul up the mass in a rattan basket with a long hooked bamboo rod and examine each basket for amber. The pits are lined with a bamboo barricade which appears flimsily constructed but does hold the pit without caving in. It seemed like a miracle to the author, since there are many pits close together.
The progress in a pit is very slow; usually two men dig about two feet in a day. All mining is stopped when a hard layer of sand is reached, since the miners believe there is no amber beneath the sand. It might prove interesting to sink a few bores much deeper to test their theory. Much of the amber thus mined remains in the area and is made into earrings, bracelets and other popular jewelry worn by the natives of the Hukawang Valley. Chinese merchants, too, purchase great quantities of amber, especially the larger pieces which are suitable for carved objects. They export these pieces to China where most of the carving is done. Some of the amber also finds its way to the European market.
For many centuries, the gem dealers of India have been the most important in the Orient. Perhaps the widespread impression that rubies and sapphires originate in India stems from the fact that the bulk of gemstones found in Ceylon, Siam and Burma is purchased by Indian dealers who keep in close touch with the gem-producing mines. There they have informants from whom the dealers purchase information about new discoveries of gems. Because so many engage in gem trading, competition is very keen. Besides the India markets, they also supply the Western markets via Paris, where many gem-buying offices are located. Purchasers from all over the world generally find it much more convenient to do their buying in Paris, where the Indian dealers keep their outlets well supplied.
During the height of Britain’s power in India, the maharajas were the wealthy, chosen few who were able to buy the expensive gems. Each one tried to outdo the others in acquiring important gems, just as art collectors do in Europe and the United States. Consequently, for a long period of time, few large gems reached the Western markets.
In the Orient, a Western purchaser of gems encounters strange difficulties, one of which is the lack of any division between the wholesale and retail trade. In India, the procedure is simple. One chooses a recommended, reliable firm of gem dealers to act as purchasing agents. They sell their own material and are familiar with the entire market as well. A verbal agreement is made giving them a percentage ranging from 2% to 5% on all outside purchases made in their offices. Word spreads rapidly that an important purchaser is in town and brokers stand in long lines to show their gems. The prospective purchaser is given the opportunity to examine the merchandise and put aside interesting items, together with the marked asking prices, for further consideration and bargaining. At the end of the day, the gems are examined carefully and leisurely and marked with the offered prices. The following day the bargaining ensues and those papers of stones are purchased on which a price agreement is reached.
The procedure just described is one used in all Oriental countries except Burma, where it is quite different. Upon arrival in Rangoon, one must immediately seek a reliable man to act as interpreter, broker and agent. This is an important choice, determining in no small measure the future success of the purchaser. In Rangoon, there are many dealers who also own retail stores containing large stocks of gems that have been brought to them by the brokers from the Mogok area. As a rule, there is little material of fine quality in the hands of such dealers.
If one desires to engage in gem purchasing with the convenience and comforts of a good hotel and fairly decent food, one can remain in Rangoon and do the best he can with his buying. A few telegrams to Mogok may bring some brokers down to show their gems. However, this is a poor arrangement for trying to buy the finest. The only way to see and buy is to go to the source at Mogok. For this prospect, the broker-agent-interpreter becomes even more important!
Once in Mogok, an entirely new set of problems arises. As mentioned previously, there are about 1200 mines in the area and it is impossible to visit all of them, even over a long period of time. Therefore, it is advisable to visit the most important dealers first to ascertain what they have to offer. Most surprising is the reluctance with which stones are shown. It seems that the dealers stall on showing until they learn approximately how much money the would-be purchaser has available. A few good starting purchases go a long way in establishing one’s reputation as a buyer with serious intentions to acquire fine gems. The buyer’s opportunities increase as the rumors spread quickly among all the inhabitants.
Contrary to custom in other Oriental countries, the startling fact revealed during a visit to Mogok is that the women are the gem merchants, rather than the men! The most influential dealers are women who are shrewd, cunning and seemingly able to read the purchaser’s mind instinctively. In some cases, the bargaining may be done by the men, but no deal is ever concluded without the full consent of the women in the household—usually the mother, mother-in-law and wife.
On my first visit to Mogok, my experiences and feelings were mixed—amazing, exasperating, frustrating, instructive and illuminating. My agent and I started out early one morning to begin my purchasing transactions. Our first stop was at the home of the most important dealer in Mogok. After two hours of imbibing the customary cups of coffee and tea, along with much conversation, I became impatient and asked my agent about seeing stones. While studying my face intently, the dealer finally exhibited one stone paper containing a very poor star sapphire. Although I wasn’t at all interested in it, I wanted to be polite and inquired about the price. If I recall correctly, I had already judged $25.00 to be a fair price. When my agent informed me that it was the equivalent of $500.00, I almost exploded but casually tossed the stone back to the dealer. I asked to see more stones but was told most politely but firmly that there were no others.
We visited five more dealers that day with similar experiences for me at the home of each. One or two stones would be shown at tremendously exaggerated prices that were completely out of line. Although I knew that the prices were inflated for bargaining, I thought it would be ridiculous to make offers amounting to perhaps 5% to 10% of the asking prices. That evening, I went over the day’s experiences and discussed them with my agent. I must digress for a moment at this point to emphasize that great reverence and respect are accorded to age by all Burmese. Because my agent was a much younger man than I, that instinctive respect for my age prevented him from giving me an immediate analysis of my day’s errors. After long discussion, I finally did gather that it was considered bad form not to make an offer on merchandise for sale, no matter how low. I asked whether my offer of $2.00 for a stone quoted at $100.00 would not be considered insulting. He assured me that my offer would be graciously received as a compliment to the gemstones, but the eventual selling price would depend on the buyer’s patience and bargaining abilities. Time is of no importance in the Orient and long, patient bargaining is an essential part of trading there. My agent further explained the high asking prices as an attempt by the dealers to learn the purchaser’s idea of a stone’s worth. Apparently, “Let the buyer beware” is the slogan!
It took me a while to assimilate this information and try to act accordingly, since it was so different from our way of conducting business. However, I knew that I must follow my agent’s advice in order to make progress. The next morning, we started out again to another dealer. After the usual long-drawn-out preliminaries of coffee, tea and conversation, I was at last shown a fine gem sapphire weighing six carats for the asking price of $3,000.00. After careful examination, I decided that I could pay $600.00 for it and asked my agent to offer $300.00 giving myself enough leeway for the expected bargaining. Although I couldn’t understand the ensuing conversation, I saw the dealer’s smile express appreciation for the offer. He said “Quarre,” meaning “Too far apart.” I instructed my agent to tell him that he was asking too much more than the stone was worth but I would raise my offer a bit if he would come down. The next price asked was $1,000.00, already a two-thirds reduction. I had my first feeling that gem buying in Mogok might eventually prove successful. I raised my first offer by $100.00, and he went down another $100.00. Whereupon my agent suggested that we let the dealer think it over and we would return the next day. The following morning, I requested the lowest price and was told that the very lowest was $700.00, “Take it or leave it.” My final offer was $600.00, which was accepted, leaving me in a much more cheerful frame of mind about the entire situation. With my newly-acquired education, I was able to make many satisfactory purchases.
After a week, word had spread that I was a good purchaser who paid high prices. Brokers came with gems from many dealers we hadn’t visited, and prospects for a most successful purchasing trip increased day by day. In the process, I slowly became aware of an important factor in the economic life of the miners. Their living conditions are most primitive, requiring an infinitesimal sum of money for all their needs. The most prosperous family spends no more than a thousand dollars a year for all living expenses. As a result, their wealth is measured in terms of the quantity of their stocks of gems. After a dealer sells enough material to provide for his needs for a long time, he is no longer interested in selling. The following experience is a good example. I found a miner with twenty pieces of rough peridot which interested me greatly. He simply refused to sell them because he didn’t want any more money until after the Burmese New Year, three months hence. My agent’s and my persuasion were of no avail. He didn’t need the money and wouldn’t sell until he did, regardless of the possibility of receiving less at a later date. He was quite positive that prices would not go down, since all the miners and dealers were learning that prices are continually rising—which also made for reluctance in selling. They believe it is the better part of wisdom to hold their gems.
The only saving factor in the whole situation is the great devotion to Buddhism practiced by these people, coupled with each one’s desire to outdo the other in the building of magnificent pagodas and temples. Such a purpose on the part of any dealer greatly facilitates business negotiations. Whereas their personal living standards are so low, they do not hesitate to spend enormous sums of money, sometimes as much as $100,000 to build beautiful temples and pagodas—and with modem sanitary facilities so conspicuously absent in their own homes.
Every dealer claims exclusive connections with certain miners to supply him only with their rough stones. Of late, however, the miners have been learning that they have not been receiving full prices and that the dealers have been taking advantage of them. Consequently, they offer their gems to more than one dealer and accept the highest offers for their rough, thus placing the dealers in a highly competitive position. It is extremely difficult to determine the yield from a rough piece of sapphire or ruby, thus making it a really speculative business. The dealers suffer much loss when the rough proves disappointing after cutting.
Alternating in the villages of Mogok and Kyatpin, there is a bazaar held every five days where the populace buys its supplies of groceries and vegetables. Miners and gem dealers also contribute to this colorful event. Dealers are always recognized by the umbrellas they carry at all times—their badge of office, as it were. Individual miners offer them rough material. My only purchase in a market place was a lot of rough rubies for which the miner began by asking $1000 and after much bargaining accepted my offer of $1!
An amusing purchase I made was at the site of a one-man controlled ditch. This miner showed me a rough piece of ruby that displayed very strong asterism. After my expression of interest, the customary bargaining began. Before long, we had a group of men, women and children surrounding us and enjoying the proceedings. When I finally completed my purchase, the people standing around claimed a commission from me, saying they were all brokers in the deal. It was said good-naturedly and with much laughter. I settled the matter by giving the brokerage fee to a few of the smallest children, and my decision was applauded as a wise one.
For many years, rumors have been circulating that the Mogok area is being worked out and will soon stop yielding any gems. My observations have convinced me that mining there will flourish for an indefinite period, and that huge quantities of gemstones worth many millions of dollars are still in the hands of the dealers. I learned that many of them have had gems in their possession for almost half a century. To illustrate, I am thinking of an eighty-two-year-old man I visited. He dreams away the days with his opium pipe and [is] loath to part with any of his gems. The dealers in Mogok have been unsuccessful in their attempts to buy one of them. Because my agent’s mother was a friend of the old man, I thought I had a good starting point in my quest. We visited one morning and found the old man squatting in a corner smoking his pipe. For four hours, talk flowed back and forth without any reference to business—we were enjoying a social visit. Finally, the conversation veered to the topic of gems and, most fortunately for me, the name of Albert Ramsay was mentioned. It seems that when he was a youngster the old man had worked for Mr. Ramsay and thought very highly of him. When my agent informed him that I had known Mr. Ramsay (we had been located in the same office building in New York), the old man declared that any friend of Mr. Ramsay’s was a friend of his; and, eventually, he decided to show me a few of his gemstones. He never exhibited more than one stone at a time. After each deal was concluded, he would disappear into a little cubicle covered by a curtain and emerge with another stone. How I wished I could peek at the treasure I knew was hidden behind that curtain! Rumor had it that the old man’s stock of gems was worth more than a million dollars and dated back to the time of the Ruby Company which had ceased activities in 1922.
Almost without exception, in every purchase I made, the starting price asked was at least ten times higher than the actual value. Only once was I offered stones at a price I thought they were worth and was willing to pay. However, that willingness almost cost me my reputation as a gem merchant. It was a box of spinels of fine quality for which the dealer asked $300.00, a price I considered fair and agreed to pay. I shall never forget his expression and the change in him at my ready acquiescence. He turned pale and told my agent I must be a smart one trying to take advantage of a poor, simple dealer. He threatened to tell the other dealers I couldn’t be trusted; and my agent and I were really in a dilemma. I thought fast and said to my agent that the offer need not be accepted, at the same time passing the box of spinels back to him. My agent then made the proper move. He took the blame in translating incorrectly, saying I had merely repeated the dealer’s statement of price. My agent whispered to me to make an offer of $150.00, which I did. After some bargaining, I bought the spinels for $200.00, absolved of all blame and $100.00 to the good!
As mentioned previously, the women are the bosses of the gem trade in Mogok. They have the final decision in all transactions involving the larger and more important stones, but they do consult their men, who are in partnership with them in such deals. However, the men have nothing to do with the trading in stones of small sizes. Such business is exclusively the province of the Mogok women and a lucrative one it is. Women throughout Burma wear jewel studs in their blouses and other apparel and are very fond of gemstones mounted in bracelets, earrings, pins and necklaces. A number of manufacturing jewelers in Mogok make attractive well-designed pieces in 22-karat gold. The women gem dealers consider the trading in small stones their bread-and-butter business; but from my own observations, I would say that it keeps them in cake as well. It is a steady, profitable, year-around business. The only stone coveted by the Burmese ladies and not found there is the diamond. It is not surprising to see a lovely Burmese lady sporting a large diamond ring or a pair of earrings mounted upside down, with the culet of the stone on top. Mounted thus, the stone gives the appearance of a pagoda-like structure, so dear to their hearts.