Dealers old enough to remember the golden age nearly 30 years back when Burma ruby was so plentiful there was no need to sell any other variety have had to make a painful peace with stones from substitute sources, mainly Thailand and, more recently, East Africa.
If no longer entirely synonymous with a specific origin, the term “Burma” is still synonymous with ideal beauty in a ruby. Whether a rich solemn intricate red called “pigeon’s blood” or a more bubbly pinkish color called “cherry red,” Burma rubies at their best have a distinctive glow, especially in broad daylight. This glow is the direct result of fluorescence. When fluorescent stones are struck by ultraviolet rays, a strong component of sunlight, they excite atoms within. This reaction adds an extra “oomph.”
Thai rubies almost always lack the vibrancy of their Burma brethren. They are cursed with the presence of iron, a trace element that affects color for the worse by adding purple and brown, all the while inhibiting fluorescence.
Thankfully, Burma/Thai price differentials narrow as stones get smaller. Very fine all-natural 1-carat Burma rubies currently wholesale for roughly 50% more that very fine 1-carat Thai stones. With fine melee, the Burma premium dwindles to 25%. Considering the desperate disproportion between supplies of Thai and Burma stones, this makes Burmese goods a bargain.
Ever since Burma’s socialist government sealed off the country in 1962, Burma ruby has been an endangered species. But even before its borders closed, mining in the country’s principal gem tract at Magok, in north-central Burma, was in sharp decline.
Miller, one of the few American gem dealers alive today to have ever visited Magok, remembers that as of his last visit in 1960 miners were already re-working the tailings of combed-over deposits. “The future of supply was open to question before Burma became off bounds,” he says.
This isn’t to say that mining has ceased. It is believed to continue, but only in a token manner. Most of what the West sees in the way of “new” Burma rubies, whether those mostly mediocre stones offered at once-a-year gem suctions in Rangoon or the modicum of far finer pieces smuggled into neighboring Thailand, are probably hoarded goods. The same goes for the majority of Burma rubies sold in major Asian gem centers such as India, Hong Kong and Singapore. In Europe and America, the market is almost entirely dependent on vintage goods, many from estates.