Burmese Rubies: What Makes Them the Supreme Red Gem?

Legend has it that “long before the Buddha walked the earth, there lived in the northern part of Burma (modern-day Myanmar) only wild animals and birds of prey. One day, the biggest and oldest eagle flew over a valley. He saw what looked like a bright-red morsel of meat on a hillside. He tried in earnest to take it, but his claws could not grasp it. At last he understood that this was a sacred and peerless stone, made from the earth itself. The stone was the very first ruby, and the valley was Mogok.”

For centuries, the Mogok Stone Tract in Upper Burma, about 435 miles north of the old Burmese capital of Rangoon, has been one of the world’s most important sources for many different types of gemstones; in fact, some of the most expensive gemstones ever found originated here. But this fruitful valley is perhaps best known for producing the world’s most outstanding rubies, known throughout history as the Burmese rubies.

The Special Qualities of Burmese Rubies

Rubies have been one of the most desired gemstones through the ages. For instance, they’re called “ratnaraj” or “King of Precious Stones” in the ancient language of Sanskrit, as well as the most precious of the 12 stones created by God. People from the distant past believed that wearing rubies could bring good health, wealth, wisdom and love. They were also known to swallow rubies whole to cure blood disorders and heal wounds. But of all the rubies ever created, those that are called Burmese rubies set the standard by which all other rubies are judged.

Burmese rubies are so highly glorified mainly because of their incredible natural purplish-red color. Like all rubies, Burmese rubies are a variety of the mineral species corundum, which, colorless in its purest form, turns red in the presence of the trace element chromium. The Mogok Valley is known to have high chromium content, which results in rubies with a stronger red color.

Burmese rubies are also typically formed in marble, which is created when limestone is subjected to intense heat and pressure as part of the mountain-formation process. Marble has a low iron content, which also causes the rubies that originate in marble to have an even stronger red color.

The Crimson Flame Burmese ruby

"The Crimson Flame" Burmese ruby and diamond ring.

Rubies rich in chromium that have formed in marble also have the ability to fluoresce or shine brightly when stimulated by ultraviolet radiation such as that in sunlight. This makes the red color of Burmese rubies even more intense and has the effect of making the stone “come alive” and appear internally illuminated.

There’s also the presence of “silk” in Burmese rubies (tiny inclusions that scatter light), which gives the gems a soft glow across the face. They also tend to have a desirable clarity that lends itself well to facetable material.

Burmese rubies are also known to produce the finest color quality in rubies—the coveted “pigeon’s blood red”—a vivid pure-red hue with no overtones of orange or brown. Burmese rubies with a natural pigeon’s blood red color are so rare that it can take one miner months to a year to find even just one. Burmese merchants often say that seeing a pigeon’s blood ruby is like seeing the face of God. 

A Brief History of Burmese Ruby Mining

It’s believed that gemstone mining and trading began in Mogok as early as the 6th century A.D. Historical records indicate that these activities date back to at least 1597, when the King of Burma secured the mines from the local Shan ruler to gain direct access to these magnificent Burmese rubies and other gems.

In 1886, the British took control of the Mogok region when they annexed Upper Burma to the colony of India. The mines were then leased in 1889 to British firm Burma Ruby Mines Ltd. The mining company faced extreme difficulties in its operation, not the least of which was discovering that the richest gem deposits were located under Mogok, leading to the relocation of an entire village. They also had to build roads, bridges, buildings, washing mills and a hydroelectric plant.

The Sunrise Ruby Burmese ruby

"The Sunrise Ruby" Burmese ruby and diamond ring by Cartier.

Exceptionally heavy rainfall in 1929 led to severe flooding of the mines; in fact, a large lake formed by the flooding still remains today. The deluge of water destroyed much of the modern mining machinery, with several attempts to repair the damage unsuccessful. Subsequently, the native miners and their centuries-old mining techniques took over Mogok once again, and this legendary city of treasure became nearly permanently closed to foreigners.

In 1997, the United States declared a national emergency against the country for human-rights violations and imposed sanctions that blocked Burmese rubies from being imported into the U.S. Those sanctions were lifted in October 2016 due to the country’s “substantial advances to promote democracy.” However, there’s a dearth of fine-quality Burmese ruby coming out of the country, making these special gems exceedingly scarce and rare.

Several of the Most Glorious Burmese Rubies

Interestingly, unlike diamonds, there are very few named, large Burmese rubies in museums or the royal collections of the world. This is due, in part, to the habit of early Burmese kings to order the rubies to be cut into smaller pieces, undermining their impressiveness. There are, however, several large Burmese rubies that have sparked serious excitement at auction houses around the world, at times selling for well above their pre-auction estimates.

Topping the list is “The Sunrise Ruby,” which sold for more than $30 million at Sotheby’s Geneva auction in May 2015, setting a world record price for a ruby. This spectacular cushion-shaped gem weighs 25.59 carats and has an outstanding combination of characteristics such as an unenhanced pigeon’s blood red color that richly saturates the stone, as well as high clarity and brilliance. Mounted by Cartier in a ring between two shield-shaped diamonds, this Burmese ruby is absolutely breathtaking.

There’s also “The Crimson Flame,” which fetched just under $18.5 million at Christie’s Hong Kong auction in December 2015. This Burmese ruby in a cushion shape weighs more than 15 carats and has a near perfect crystallization and unenhanced pigeon’s blood red color. It’s beautifully showcased within a cushion-shaped diamond surround atop a white gold band encrusted with pavé-set circular-cut diamonds.

The Jubilee Ruby Burmese ruby

The "Jubilee Ruby" Burmese ruby and diamond ring by Verdura.

Another example is the “Jubilee Ruby” that appears in a sensational gold and diamond ring by Verdura, which sold for $14.2 million at Christie’s New York auction in April 2016. This Burmese ruby, weighing 15.99 carats, is the most expensive colored gemstone ever sold at auction in the United States. 

It’s important to note that rubies are often heat-treated to enhance their color and appearance. Finding a ruby of Burmese origin that’s both unheated and weighs more than even one carat is extremely rare and can therefore garner prices such as these, some of the highest in the gemstone world.

Burmese rubies are the dream of every gemstone connoisseur, including here at Jogani, where we have a collection of fine unheated Burmese rubies that combine the most sought-after qualities of this precious gem. Take a look at our offerings. We’re sure you’ll want for your collection one of these legendary colored gems, perhaps the most prestigious and prized ever created.

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