Newbie’s Guide to Choosing Gems in Myanmar

Photo: Ye Myat Tun Photography

You may have heard of the tumultuous love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  Liz was infatuated with expensive and rare gems; Burton was obsessed with throwing them at her.

Once, Richard gave her an 8.24 carat ruby and diamond ring. Liz said of the ruby, “It was the most perfect colored stone I’d ever seen.”  That “perfect” ruby, mined right here in Myanmar, took the actor four years to find.  Forty-three years later, the ring was auctioned off at a whopping $4.2 million, setting a per-carat world record for a ruby.

Unlike Burton, most expats and tourists in Myanmar neither have four years nor a team of experts to devote to locating a quality gemstone.  They must go at it alone or apprehensively rely on the word of tour guides and translators.  The biggest fear is being cheated and dropping a few thousand on a gem that is worth only a few kyats.

Honey Myint Thaung, a fourth-generation jeweler and founder of Zoria Gems, says that there are some ways to protect yourself while shopping.  The first rule is to double-check your gem.  “I really recommend that everyone who doesn’t understand rubies and sapphires go to the lab.  In Bogyoke Market there are a lot.  It’s not expensive- it’s about 3,000 kyats.”  Zoria Gems uses AGGL Gems in Bogyoke Market, who, she says, is internationally certified.

Along with authenticity, labs can advise on whether the gems are natural, synthetic, treated, as well as shed light on their provenance. These are important considerations when purchasing an investment piece.  Amber Cernovs, the co-founder of Mia Ruby, agrees. “Go to an internationally certified laboratory,” she instructs. A certificate of authenticity from them would definitely hold weight. She recommends GIA Bangkok, since certificates in Thailand tend to be internationally recognized.

Both companies source their gems from Mogok, a historically significant mining region located about 400 miles north of Yangon. “I trust the single gem trading family that we buy from,” Amber stressed.“I tested their gems with appraisers in Australia and the UK and their reputation with international colored stone experts.”  She also ensures that the gems are mined responsibly.  For Amber, this means that the miners are treated well and that labor laws are adhered to as best as possible.

Rubies and sapphires are commonly treated with heat to intensify their color.  In other cases, the stones are dyed. Many gems have inclusions – natural fractures or material trapped within.  If the inclusions are too pronounced, they may be filled to look more transparent. Natural, untreated gems are the most valuable.  “A lot of gems here get smuggled out to Thailand, they’re treated in Thailand, and then they’re brought back in,” said Amber.  “People may not even know that that’s what they’ve bought.”

Even for someone who’s family has been in the business for many years, determining the value of a stone can be challenging.  Honey states that she must carefully observe the cut of stones she is presented. “In many cases, the price just comes from [their] mouth,” she reveals.  If a buyer appears wealthy, a jeweler may try to raise their price per carat by as much as $500. The same also holds true if the buyer appears to be a novice. She knows of one buyer who brings his loupe, or magnifier, with him to the markets so as not to appear so vulnerable.

It also helps to know the Four C’s: clarity, cut, carat, and color.  Clarity refers to how well light passes through.  The fewer the inclusions, the clearer the stone. Many Burmese stones are hand-cut. Well-cut designs determine how attractive, durable, and brilliant the stone will be – neither too deep nor too shallow.  Honey says that many dealers in Myanmar want to value their stones based on weight, whether the stone’s cut is practical or not. Except for diamonds, in all other gems color is the most important factor when choosing a stone. It’s essential that the tone is not too dark.

“Buy what you like, not what you think you are supposed to like,” instructs Amber.  “Buy something because it’s beautiful, because you want a memento of Myanmar, and because you want to support Myanmar.” If jewelry for a cause is the goal, Honey recommends Eden Jewelry.  “They have very good designs plus they help victims of human trafficking,” she gushes. Amber supports Turquoise Mountain, an NGO aimed at promoting handcrafted gold jewelry as well as restoring Yangon heritage landmarks.

Once you’ve procured your new treasure, you may worry about the customs process. Don’t.  Both Honey and Amber ensure that your personal items pass through customs and claims easily.  “However,” says Amber, “best to have correct purchase documentation/official receipt from a licensed gemstone trader.”

Photos by : Brittney Tun and Ye Myat Tun

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