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Burma Ruby: A History of Mogok’s Rubies from Antiquity to the Present

Burma ruby book cover

Burma Ruby: A History of Mogok’s Rubies from Antiquity to the Present
By S.K. Samuels, 254 pp., illus., publ. by S.K.S. Enterprises, Tucson, AZ, 2003. US$45.00

The author, who was born in Burma, has used his wealth of personal experience in compiling this book. Dr. Samuels lived under the British rule of Burma and, later, its occupation by the Japanese during World War II. After the war, he earned a medical degree from the University of Rangoon and traveled around the Mogok district. In 1960, he emigrated to the United States, and did not return to Burma (now Myanmar) until more than 20 years later.
     In Burma Ruby, Dr. Samuels looks at the Mogok mines from the local perspective, in contrast to the occidental histories put together by the “noble enterprise” of colonialism. He tells much of this history via anecdotes and personal communications, using a variety of unique Burmese sources, as well as more traditional references.
      In the first chapter, “Lure of the Ruby,” one of the author’s major points is that many references to ruby in antiquity fail to note the actual sources of the material. He concludes that, since Sri Lankan rubies are predominantly pink, many rubies in the ancient European references might be from Mogok. Unfortunately, this deduction ignores the fact that some Sri Lankan rubies are decidedly red; he also does not take into account any of the African localities, which produce rubies of very similar look to Mogok. As one can imagine, attempting to document anecdotes covering 1,000 years of history is no easy task.
      The second chapter is a concise natural history of the geography, climate, topography, and geology of Myanmar, as well as the ethnic and linguistic groups that make up the complicated land of the ruby. The next 80 pages deal with the history of Burma leading up to and through World War II, again relying on local Burmese legends and histories, prefacing them with this statement: “Not much credence can be given to such stories, but they do suggest that rubies and other precious gems were known, valued, and used by inhabitants of the country for a long time.”
      The following chapter, “Developing the Post-War Gem Trade,” first describes the escalating political and economic problems leading up to the March 1962 military coup and beyond. It then looks at development of the Myanmar Gems Corporation and the auctions held by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.
      In the “Stone Tract” chapter, the author discusses the Mogok area itself, covering the geography, geology, and mines. Briefly mentioned are the Mong Hsu mines, which today produce most of the world’s rubies (albeit, treated). At the end of the chapter, he discusses rubies and their classification, as well as the sapphires of Burma.
      Next is a section of unnumbered pages with 33 color plates. Most are original photos by the author, and all have interesting gemological themes, including pictures of the palaces, King Thibaw’s ruby-encrusted slippers, and a flawless sapphire of approximately 20 carats, offered for $100,000 in 2002 by a private party. The tragedy is the poor color reproduction. Fortunately, the black-and-white photos throughout the book are of better quality.
      In “Properties of Burmese Rubies and Sapphires,” Dr. Samuels mixes gemology with emphasis on local customs. For instance, he mentions that the color is due to impurities such as chromium, but then goes on to discuss the term pigeon’s blood. He is accurate in commenting that, while such terms are relics of the past, they carry a certain romanticism that is very important to gemstones.
      The chapter titled “Smuggling, Heat Treatment, and Provenance of Burma Rubies” presents some stories that are quite amusing, including how the 496.5 ct SLORC ruby (named for the country’s State Law and Order Restoration Committee) came to be spirited out of the country and back again. Heat treatment and provenance are mentioned briefly, but not from a scientific standpoint. The chapter ends with a list of five local gem labs that do origin reports, along with addresses.
      “The Gem Trade in Modern Burma” covers the economic structure of Burma, exchange-rate issues, and the country’s poor economic performance of the last decade. The author also covers the annual gem emporium, but only in general terms (mostly just in table form), without any photos or depictions of specifics.
      “Buying Gems in Burma” includes a short history of Rangoon, plus the ins and outs of trying to buy at the MGE auction or at Rangoon’s Gems Museum. Dr. Samuels gives a rather simplistic summation of three of the C’s (color, clarity, and cut), plus common precautions to take when buying.
      Following the author’s closing remarks are various appendices, especially of interest for Burma-philes. There is also a somewhat limited bibliography of works cited. One major flaw of the book, given the breadth of issues it covers, is that it lacks an index.
      All in all, while there is some interesting information here, the book would have benefited greatly from better editing and production.

WILLIAM LARSON
Pala International
Fallbrook, California

Note: The above review appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Gems & Gemology, pp. 348–349.

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