A Visit to the Gem Emporium
A Visit to the Gem Emporium
By Emily Jane Chang
The following article appeared in Lotus: Inflight Magazine of Air Bagan (Vol. 7, No. 1).
Several years ago when I was still in college studying architecture, I came to Myanmar with my parents. It was our first visit. We all loved the tranquillity of the country, which we felt even in Yangon, the biggest city, when compared to life in Hong Kong where I grew up.
My parents especially loved Bagan, the ancient city with thousands of old temples. They saw many monasteries and discovered Buddhist meditation centres. They have been returning once a year to visit Bagan and do some meditation. I could not join them after their first trip because of my studies and after graduation I was very focused on my career.
Last year, Lily, a friend (I have known since we were in high school) had joined her father’s jewellery business, and invited me to go with her to Myanmar to attend the Mid Year Gem Emporium in November. She would be bidding for jade and maybe some rubies and pearls. She said her father had been attending these Gem Emporium auctions since the first one in 1964, and that the Gem Emporiums are held three times a year in March, July and November. This would be the first to be held at Naypyitaw, the new capital.
The only thing I know about the Myanmar gem trade is what Lily has informed me, that no other place in the world could match Myanmar for its gem quality, size and quantity. Its rubies and Imperial Jade found in Mogok and Hpakant mines, sapphires and other gemstones; with the southern coastline and seas also producing pearls of high lustre, size and quality.
I never bothered much about wearing jewellery, and since high school I have only been wearing a plain gold chain that my late grandmother gave me when I was 12 years old. In October 2010, I had just completed a very successful office building project and I thought it was a great chance to enjoy a well-earned holiday with a trip to this beautiful country. Besides, it was time I started collecting some nice jewellery, as my business is beginning to expand and I keep meeting new clients at receptions and parties.
We went to Myanmar a week earlier than the opening of the Gem Emporium so that we could spend time in Bagan and Inle Lake, which we enjoyed very much. Lily is engaged to a well known chef (her ring is an Imperial Jade set with diamonds) and she is always eager to taste and take home new ingredients and recipes for her fiancé. We loved the Shan noodles at Inle Lake and discovered the delicious, savoury dark-coloured bean paste in Bagan.
While we were on Inle Lake I read in the newspaper that at the Emporium, over 9000 lots of jade, 300 lots each of pearls and precious stones were to be auctioned. I asked Lily about the amazing quantities and she said to wait until I see the high quality and the awesome sizes with quality.
We arrived in Naypyitaw the day before the opening and after checking in at the hotel where Lily’s secretary Mei was waiting, we went to the Gem Museum. I was amazed at the display of such incredibly large and excellent stones, some loose and some set in gold sets. I saw the biggest natural pearl in the world, a shimmering oval of cabochon Peridot, velvety-blue sapphire, glowing cut rubies, many star-sapphires and rubies, and elegant chokers of perfectly matched pearls in lustrous hues of silver, gold, cream and pink colours. The tour of the museum made me all the more eager to see what would be offered at the Emporium.
The Mani Ratana Jade Hall was already packed with gem merchants by the time we entered. In the hall, large, translucent chunks of rubies and sapphires gleamed under the beams of light that one gem trader after another was shining on them from small torches, to check for colour and clarity. I peeked over their shoulders at the raw pieces of gems that looked as if red and blue fires were burning from within.
Trays of perfect globules of shimmering golden pearls caught my eye; Lily told me that Myanmar pearls are famous for its top quality, known to traders as “rainbow iridescent.” She also told me that Mogok rubies are famous and unique as they are the only kind in the world which have a fluorescence glow.
Jade boulders were piled by lots inside a large paved area, out under the sunlight. Lily and her secretary were very busy here, going from boulder to boulder, checking each piece carefully. I know nothing about checking the quality of jade or bidding for gems, so I left them hard at work and walked over to the Jade Garden which is next to the hall where the Emporium was taking place. It was very peaceful and green as I strolled lazily along the paths, enjoying the cool breeze and often stopped to look at the large boulders of jade set here and there on the grass. What an amazingly beautiful and rich country, I thought to myself, so rich they could place jade boulders as part of the landscaping in the garden!
Afterwards, I browsed through the private jewellery shops that displayed matched jewellery sets in rubies, sapphires, and jade rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Lily had given me the name of the shop where her father and she have been buying for years, and after asking around, I found the shop.
Daw Nu Nu, the lady at the shop, whom Lily called “Aunty Nu” was there and I told her that I had known Lily’s family since we were children and that Lily was busy now but she would come to see her later.
Daw Nu Nu looked a bit younger than my mother, and she told me that Lily’s parents had been customers and friends of her family since the first 1964 Emporium. Her mother once ran this shop but now she has retired and Daw Nu Nu’s eldest daughter will take over in about five years.
She talked about the previous venues of the Emporium which were in Yangon and said that the gem trade has expanded so much over the last decade, and with more buyers than before travelling from all over the world, a bigger place was needed. She told me that this new Mani Ratana Jade Hall was built on a 21-acre wide piece of land and that the 100 feet high building measured feet by 300 feet. She said there were 100 shops like hers and I could well believe it. I asked her how many buyers would be here now, and she said it was more than before but could not guess the exact number. (In the newspaper the next day it was reported that 6,000 gem traders attended, including nearly 3,000 from abroad.)
I carefully looked over the jewellery in Daw Nu Nu’s display case to begin my own collection. It was very difficult to choose from so many lovely pieces. Finally, I bought a tear-drop Imperial Jade, translucent and cool-looking, to wear on my chain. Then for evenings, I bought a pendant of a 3-carat ruby with two smaller diamonds set like leaves at the top, making the ruby look like a glowing, exotic fruit. I also bought matching earrings.
I told Daw Nu Nu that next year if I could not come to the first Emporium in March, I would ask Lily to begin my pearl collection with a ring, and using that as a base I could add more pieces. I promised her that I would come again if my work permits and that my mother could also get more pieces for me on her annual Bagan trips with my father. Within a few years I should have a nice collection. When I find someone special to share my life, I am going to insist he proves his love with a ring set with a ruby from Mogok, with its warm, inner fire, that burns forever.