Cap Beesley recently returned from a two-week trip to Burma. He is among the first westerners to visit the famous Mogok mines in recent years. Here is his exclusive report. Cap Beesley is the President of American Gemological Laboratories (AGL) in New York. He can be reached at 1-212-704-0727 or email email@example.com
Burma (Myanmar) has been essentially closed to foreigners for thirty years. For most of the time, tourists were restricted to a 24 hour visa, which limited travel to Rangoon. Now there is open access to Mandalay and other important northern archeological centers. The current liberalization of travel restrictions and mining policies is revitalizing Burma's significance in the gem market and the travel industry. The persistent theme in and around the populated areas of Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay is "Visit Myanmar in 1996". Although this transition to a more open environment is underway, there are still elements of control and restraint that are evident throughout the system. For example, my trek, arranged through Burmese intermediaries, actually took almost 1 1/2 years of back and forth communication to organize. Beyond Mandalay, travel is only possible with government supervision and authorized travel agents.
AGL is particularly interested in origin and gemstone enhancement issues relative to ruby and sapphire in and around the Mogok area, which is the classic location for fine Burma material. A new location called Mong Hsu has in recent years produced substantial qualities of treated material. The end result of our extended negotiations with the government was open access to several above and below ground mining operations in and around Mogok. Although we were constantly supervised by a tour guide we nick-named "the shadow", there were no constraints on information availability or access to details concerning mining output or operation.
Mogok has an official population of 200,000, unofficially the count is estimated at 350,000. The elevation, climatic conditions, and an abundant supply of water in this area all create an ideal mining environment in which hydraulic recovery plays a pivotal role working alluvial deposits above ground. Most of the major projects are joint ventures with the military which carry big ticket lease costs paid to the government. Underground deposits are more widespread than I imagined, especially for ruby. Despite the volume of potential product and the production capability of some highly mechanized recovery plants, gems of high quality are still a rarity and command top dollar even in local dealer activity. Several open air markets are extremely active despite their "unofficial" status. Asking prices are frequently exorbitant, with some transactions taking days to complete because of the laboriously complicated broker dominated network of distribution. We tested all the acquisition mechanisms while acquiring a variety of materials for our laboratory research collection and training programs.
Foreigners are still an oddity in Mogok. During this visit I encountered two well supervised news crews representing French television. In general, reporters are viewed with distrust by the military government. During an interview with one of the French TV news teams, they probed concerning AGL's purpose for visiting this remote area and my interpretation of the future gem potential of this region and Burma in general.
One of the major producers of ruby, the Mong Hsu area was classified as a "brown" area, and off limits via road, but accessible by helicopter at $10,000(US) round trip. Insurgents and bandits can easily block the very poorly maintained and narrow 1 1/2 lane, major highways. The military in Burma estimate that there are 200,000 people working in this relatively new mining area. Unfortunately, the majority of this material looks like "bad garnet" when it is retrieved from the ground. Although Mong Hsu material does have a definite place in the gem market, it is not the same as "classic" unheated and unaltered Mogok material. Unfortunately, no other lab in the world, except AGL, makes this distinction. From a buyers standpoint this is a pivotal and financially significant issue.
According to locals, even the one time "drug lords", now called the "Peacemakers", have jumped ship and are using their ill-gotten gains to acquire mining leases that have transformed them into legitimate businessmen. This government move to settle the on going problems with the armed militia of drug merchants has temporarily provided a more peaceful environment in Burma. Unfortunately, it is like making a deal with a Pit Bull; you never know when your relationship is going to turn ugly.
In the final analysis, fine gems are still rare and stones that exhibit an ideal balance of color, clarity and cutting are exceedingly difficult to find. The pressure on price continues to escalate as more buyers turn their attention to un-doctored material and the increasing desirability of "classic" material instead of the enhanced product that tampers with the definition of rarity.
By Robert Genis
Gemstone Forecaster: Could you describe your background in geology?
Alan Roup: I have been involved in the mining of gemstones in Southwest Africa for over 30 years. I am a graduate geologist. My background is geology and chemistry. I worked for the Rhodesian Geological Survey. I also worked as an oil geologist for the Israel Geological Survey and for an Oil Prospective Company as an oil geologist. I was a consultant geologist in Namibia in the mid-sixties. I opened the first blue tourmaline mine in 1964, when I found 600 kilos of rough. In 1969, I started a major amethyst mine which produced material until 1985.
GF: Is it difficult to find Mandarin Orange Garnets?
AR: Our mine is extremely isolated. We have to bring in parts, machines, food and radios to maintain contact the rest of the world. The mine is located in a mountain nearby our base camp. Mining these garnets is extremely dangerous and costly. We have to remove significant quantities of over-burden in order to find the mandarins.
GF: Do you have any local tribes to deal with?
AR: There are almost daily episodes with the local Ovahimba Tribe. They are extremely primitive, and I could write a book!
For example, the Ovahimba Tribe have no conception of what the word "government" means. When we arrived in the area, we told them we had bought a claim, registering it with the Ministry of Mines and we were absolutely legally entitled to mine there. That meant zero to them-only if their ancestors agreed, we would be allowed to stay. Otherwise, we would have to go. We spent about three hours outside in the desert one dark night, sitting on our haunches like they do, while they prayed and asked their long lost ancestors if we could stay. Luckily, the answer was yes! But we were required to bring alcoholic drinks to "thank the ancestors", while the living finished off the entire stock of beer. Had we known, we would have brought the beer in the beginning, without going through three hours of make-believe!
GF: I understand you bought the new mandarin orange garnet mine from a Namibian?
AR: Yes, I bought one claim (600 meters x 300 meters) from an African without any real indication that we would find any gem quality spessartine garnet. It took us three months of exploration before we found one gemstone!
GF: Could you give the readers a mental image of the mine site? What did you do to prepare the site for mining?
AR: When I bought the claim, no infrastructure existed. Today we have a dirt landing strip as we fly in a Cessna 182. We have built housing for 22 staff members and two managers. We also have hot or cold water, but the water is salty. We do have a radio and a flush toilet. We have a kitchen and a dining room for the staff and a cook to prepare meals. We build dirt roads where necessary.
GF: Do you plan to do any more improvements to the site?
AR: We are about to drill for water. Eighty per cent of our water is salt water. The rest is shared with the zebras, who urinate in the water while they drink.
GF: How far is it from a major city? How do you get there? By plane or by road?
AR: Windhoek, the capital is 1000 kilometers away. It takes three days to get there with a 4x4 vehicle or three and a half hours by the Cessna 182.
GF: What are the temperatures at your mine?
AR: This is a very, very hot area. In the summer temperatures get over 40 degrees Celsius. In the winter it gets down to 15 degrees Celsius.
GF: Does it ever flood or rain at your site?
AR: It only rains in the summer. So far this season we have had about 12 mm of rain. It does not flood because of the mountainous terrain.
GF: Could you describe the mining process? Do you use dynamite? Bulldozers?
AR: I am very anti-bulldozer. I use front-end loaders, compressors, and then dynamite-but not in the actual formation. Bulldozers are messy, slow and crush what is underneath-we prefer wheels.
GF: Could you break down your mining production into melee vs. carat size stones?
AR: Most of our production is melee up to 1/2 carat finished size. Possibly 90% is melee. Gem qualities occur in potatoes not crystals, very much like tsavorite of East Africa. Potato is a local word used to describe a group of "re-melting" orange garnet crystals. Potatoes show no crystal symmetry whatsoever. Potatoes look like potatoes, but are actually a total garnet composition.
GF: Are the Japanese (Far East) your major customers? Do Europeans like the stone?
AR: Far East are the best customers. Americans and Europeans are now starting to become important.
GF: I know you were also involved in discovering the first mandarin orange garnet site in Namibia. What is your opinion of the gems from the first site vs. your new mine?
AR: I started the first mine on the Kunene River. My present mine is 28 kilometers south of the river. The first mine only has crystals. The material is somewhat orangy/yellow vs. my new mine where I can best describe the colors as orange/red or aurora red.
GF: Sometimes new gems are hard to market internationally. What has been your experience? Do you think the gems will become more accepted as years go by? Do you think mandarin orange garnets will be the next tanzanite?
AR: Acceptance of the mandarin is growing rapidly. The gem is not just another red, blue, or green gem. It is different and it is exciting.
GF: What are the largest mandarins you have ever discovered?
AR: An 11.17 fine gem was the largest!
GF: Most of my readers are collectors. Do you think this stone merits collecting?
AR: Absolutely. The stone is very, very rare. It is difficult to find and certainly worthwhile collecting the largest and best examples.
GF: Thank you Mr. Roup. Please keep us informed of the latest news from Namibia.
National Gemstone presently has a few carat-sized Mandarin Orange garnets in stock. Call 1-800-458-6453 if you want to own one of these rare collectible gems.
"National Gemstone. A sparkling page. Literally. While investing in gems is probably not advisable for the average investor, if you'd like to learn something about valuable gems and enjoy looking at pretty pictures on the net this is worth investing some time! Some very useful information about gems and investing in gems for fun and profit is available here, but more to my liking are the spectacular gifs of stones in the Smithsonian Gem and Mineral Collection."
Christie's Auction Results-April
Christie's sold over $41 million during its April Auction. Of the 521 lots offered, 403 or 77% were sold.