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Pala International has consistently earned its reputation as the direct source for the finest colored stones.

City Built on Rubies

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City Built on Rubies

By W. G. Fitz-Gerald


The following article appeared in Technical World Magazine (Vol. 7, No. 5 [July], 476–483).


Technical World Magazine Cover

LOOKING at the quaint, picturesque town of Mogok, Burmah, cradled in wooded hills clotted with temples and bungalows, who would dream that its life has been a life of dread mysteries and awful crimes? Yet the Ruby City has seen things not to be recounted, because of its treasures, from King Solomon's day to that of King Thebaw. Indeed, were it not for the red glowing stones a king would now be reigning at Mandalay instead of a British subject.

In Mogok they see everything in a ruby light, men, women and children. Every visitor must want to buy, they think. However hungry or thirsty the traveler may be on arrival, the first thing he hears spoken of is rubies. All Mogok seems to be fishing with bamboo hoisters. And they are fishing—for rubies, in the precious "byon," that rivals in richness the famous "blue ground" of Kimberley.

Each man wears a conical hat, and as he squats he digs between his knees with a broad-bladed tool two feet long, tossing the soil into a shallow basket with a bamboo handle, and sending it up by the long slender arm of the hoist. At the surface the crude old washing process goes on, as it did in Bible days, by means of precious water conducted for miles through bamboo pipes.

The native ruby market at Mogok Burmah.

The native ruby market at Mogok Burmah.

The "byon," or gravel, is distributed to natives of all ages and both sexes. Children barely able to walk have their work; so have patriarchs of ninety. Sapphire, spinel, corundum, and crystal, are all sorted from the glowing red stones and put in a little bamboo cup filled with water, to be transferred later to a cotton bag.

And how they vary, these rubies! Here are tiny stones sold for fifty cents a hundred for use in the world's watches. But up on that hillside a gorgeous specimen of eighteen and one-half carats was once found, which, when cut in London and reduced to eleven carats, sold for $35,000. It was just an intense spot of blood-red light, fit for a monarch's crown.

Here are Chinamen and Armenians, Hindoos and Britishers: all sorts of unlikely people talking and acting rubies. Hundreds of little Burmans dressed in every hue of the rainbow are grovelling in the refuse about the Monopoly's mine. Yet everybody's honesty is a wondrous thing, vastly different from the prevailing iniquity of diamond Kimberley.

Ruby-cutting. The tools are crude but the results remarkable.

Ruby-cutting. The tools are crude but the results remarkable.

Stroll over by the river and you may kick a few tin cans. Stoop and you will see they are full of rubies and the many colored stones found with them. Pick up the cans and no man will remonstrate with you. For theft is almost unknown in Mogok; besides, the natives take you for a customer. And now accost one of these gaily-clad grovellers in mud and sand. The little fellow looks up and smiles; undoes his waistcloth and rolls out of it a treasure of rubies and moonstones, sapphires and garnets and cats-eyes worth a large fortune.

The "Ruby King" up there in the town is a Burman known from Mogok to Rangoon and Calcutta; and on high days he decks his favorite daughter with crimson stones worth $100,000. It was he who built the slender-spired pagoda monastery that his years might be long, his luck great, and his standing high in the next world.

Up till 1885 all this treasure belonged to the King of Burmah, but no savage ruler could keep it long in those days. Thebaw amassed riches untold. Even today men seek his hidden hoards under the tinkling pagodas of Mandalay. No miner in the king's day might keep a stone worth more than $250; all others fell to the crown.

Upper Burmah was annexed by the British in 1885. Just previously a Burmese agent in Paris offered the ruby concessions to Bonvillein & Co. for $100,000 paid annually. But after Burmah became British, Edwin Streeter, the great pearl merchant of London, began negotiations with the Indian Secretary of State with a view to obtaining the concession. And as a result three agents were soon on their way out to take possession.

The European method of mining for rubies.

The European method of mining for rubies.

But there was opposition in the British parliament, and the Secretary of State for India decided that before going farther he must have an independent report from the state geologist, Barrington Brown. Finally Streeter was given a lease of several years at a rental of $133,000 a year, besides a royalty of sixteen per cent of the profits. The pearl man promptly turned over his concession to the Rothschilds; and in due time the five-dollar founders' shares were worth $2,500—when they came into the market, which was rarely indeed. As the leases were renewed alterations were made by the Indian government. The present lease runs until May 1, 1932, at a rental of $96,000 per annum and thirty per cent of the mines' output. The extent of the rubiferous tract is four hundred square miles, a vast area, the soil of which is literally teeming with wealth.

But rarely do the annals of mining record such a peculiar struggle as awaited the Rothschilds' pioneer engineers. This was because the government sternly forbade them to interfere with native millers. These were to go on ruby-hunting as their forefathers had been doing since Solomon's day, and the newcomers' rights in land and water were only to be acquired at fair market prices.

In this condition lay the difficulties that it took patient years of labor and experiment to overcome—not to mention the expenditure of millions of dollars in ways and means that proved entirely useless.

Native mining. Digging the rich ruby-bearing gravel from the river bed.

Native mining. Digging the rich ruby-bearing gravel from the river bed.

Arrived in Mogok the white pioneer found himself in a perplexing position. True, he represented the government concessionaires—was the far-famed Burmah ruby mines personified, a corporation which today controls the world's trade in these beautiful gems.

But where and how was he to begin? He found only pathless jungle, or else cultivated valleys where native mining was carried on. These valleys the local people had already occupied, so he was driven off to the tiger-ridden jungle, like any outcast rather than supreme concessionaire.

All the easy and traditionally profitable places he found occupied by native diggers he dared not disturb. And as you may suppose, prospecting at random in the dense jungle was heart-breaking business. Moreover, there was no labor and no road to the Irrawaddy save a fine-weather cart-track sixty miles long; nor was there any dwelling fit for a white man; and the food was both poor and scant.

European washing mill. These mills cast away all large stones and rubbish and collect the fine sand from which rubies are obtained.

European washing mill. These mills cast away all large stones and rubbish and collect the fine sand from which rubies are obtained.

The industry was new, and previous experience worse than useless, because misleading. That pioneer had been gold-mining on the Rand; hydraulicking in California and New Zealand; copper mining in the Rio Tinto. But here he was a novice and must go by the old arithmetical method of trial and error.

He brought out a few colleagues, tried to get a staff together, and then struggled along for many weary months. Soon operations in the Mogok valley had to be given up, for there was no water. Thereupon the entire staff migrated hopefully to Kyatpyin valley, eight miles off, called in Burmese "Pingutaung," or the Hill of Spiders. In dark caves here, native tradition said, was the real home of the famous "pigeon-blood" ruby.

And so they tried to get at the precious "byon" in these caves and under the slopes at the hill's base. Perhaps, they thought, we may come on a volcanic "pipe" of rubies, as in the case of the Kimberley diamonds. Long and patiently they worked, and then as if to mock them one magnificent stone was found high up on the stony face of the Spider’s hill.

So far the "byon" or ruby ground had been carried from all workings to one central washer; but the yield would not pay for all the labor involved. It was deemed better to get a perfect army of coolies and cover a great area; to try, in short, what quantity would do, since quality did not pay. They next selected the Tagoungnandaing valley, and got power for pumps and washers from a big water wheel half a mile off, connected with the mines by an endless cable.

A steady output began forthwith, but this section was soon worked out, and the ruby miners had to move again, this time with added experience, back to the Mogok valley. For they had now learned their lessons, among them the right way to deal with the valley deposits.

Soon the Shwebontha mine was opened up, and in a few years had yielded four million dollars' worth of rubies. Burmah was beginning to show that she could rule the world in the matter of these gems, at any rate. And labor began to be abundant, mainly Chinese Shans from the vast and little-known regions between Bhamo and Yunan. Cheerful, willing fellows are these, in loose jackets and trousers. They live on rice and dry fish, with tea as their drink, pork their luxury, and opium their necessity. They will work ten hours a day or night, above ground or below, for thirty-two cents, feeding and housing themselves.

The method of working is as follows: A pit is sunk ten feet square and twenty-five feet deep; and a centrifugal pump put into it. The earth from this pit is loaded into trucks hitched on to an endless rope. These are hauled up an incline and the "byon" screened, disintegrated and washed in a great revolving pan fourteen feet in diameter, in which rows of steel teeth work the thick mud round and round.

Twice a day a door in the bottom of the big pan is opened and the deposit drawn off into covered cars, which are instantly locked and left for the white sorters. Later the deposit is tipped into a huge bin, also with a locking lid, and from this the stuff dribbles into a revolving screen of several meshes. The sand is got rid of promptly, and then the clean deposit drops in five sizes, of which the largest goes straight to the sorting table and the rest down into the pulsator, a sort of perpetual motion jigger. No natives handle the larger sizes. The residue is worked round and round in a sieve in a tub of water until the gems are at the bottom.

Then the pan is turned upside down on a table with the true rubies on top, and sorting begins by the office staff, who put aside the inferior spinels and other stones and then hand over the day’s find to the chief agent.

A sale of inferior stones and "speculative pieces" is held at the office once a fortnight, and is attended by all the Burmese, Chinese, and Hindoo dealers and merchants, who are born gamblers and run up the bids in sensational style. The monopoly tries to avoid this, however, for unless their customers make a reasonable profit the trade is harmed.

A continual search for rubies goes on day after day.

A continual search for rubies goes on day after day.

A speculative lump of red corundum may be auctioned on the agent's verandah for $3,330, and the buyer breaks it open in fear and trembling, hoping to find a piece of fine stone in the center. Needless to say this kind of gambling often leads to heavy loss and disappointment.

Red spinels, pale sapphires, and other inferior stones, are not sent away, but are put into the Mogok sale with polishing corundum, garnets, tourmalines, beryls, and crystals. All this is sold at fifteen dollars per vis, a Burmese weight of 8,100 carats. And these stones are made into cheap jewelry for all Asia's millions—always excepting the Burmans, who know too much about it.

All the working troubles of the ruby monopoly are over now, but they were surely numerous enough at first. Thus it cost too much to haul coal from the river by buffalo cart, so they tried firewood. But this covered acres of precious ruby ground; was constantly pilfered or set on fire, or else eaten by the voracious white ants. And as to the mines, floods would come bursting from powerful springs deep down in the limestone and wreak damage it would take months to repair. But gradually all the strategic points of the natives were won by purchase, and the working grew easier. One ancient Shan asked $5,000 for his water rights and ditch, and promptly got it.

Today the main ruby mine is twelve hundred yards long and two hundred wide, with an average depth of forty-five feet. But as I have shown, the natives also may mine all their own account, paying licenses of $9.60 per man for each miner employed. The native merchant does what he pleases with his own finds; but a watchful monopoly employs a large staff of European inspectors to see that the Burmans do not employ more hands than they pay for.

There is an immense local native trade in rubies in the town. In every other house you will see Burmese, Shan or Hindoo dealers squatting round a metal plate full of the rich crimson stones. And in little thatched sheds outside the city a regular ruby bazaar is held every afternoon.

But no industry is more uncertain than winning fine rubies in Burmah. One tunnel was supposed by the local engineers to contain fifteen million dollars’ worth, yet it seemed to fizzle out suddenly. The monopoly abandoned it, after spending much time and money, and then came along a few gentle almond-eyed Shans and made an immense fortune out of the derelict mine.

A very few fine rubies enormously out-value a great quantity of rough pale stones. But when all is said ruby-mining is slow and disappointing work and rarely averages more than $15,000 for each acre treated. It is shrewdly suspected by the white men in Mogok that the richest mines of all are at this moment growing scratch crops of poor grain belonging to fanatical natives, who literally place "above rubies," as the Bible has it, the land and manners of their forefathers.