Gemmology Canada - Special Issue

Tracing the green line

A journey to Burma's jade mines

Part 2- Jade--Stone of heaven

June 5--Hpakan
For over thirty years, Burma's military government has kept the Crown Jewel of Jadedom locked away like a virgin in a tower. It has taken four long days of travel, with the past three yielding a scant 35 miles, just to get a glimpse of the tower. But here we stand, on the cusp of Hpakan. Rapunzel has let down her long hair--now we are poised to ride the strand into a fairy-tale world, one where dreams come true and all the dragons are colored imperial green.

Little Hong Kong-- Town at the end of the universe
Considering the difficulty in getting here, what awaits us in the valley below is all the more amazing. Amongst locals, Hpakan is known as "Little Hong Kong" because, like the British Crown Colony, you can get anything you want. Whatever the apple of your sweetheart's desire, it's available in Hpakan. Just be prepared to pay the price, which, is two to three times that found elsewhere in Burma. But exorbitant prices matter little at Hpakan, a topsy-turvy town in a topsy-turvy country, where today's taxi driver just might be tomorrow's tycoon.

Jade--Stone of heaven II
In humanity's entire recorded history, there has never existed a more intimate relationship between a people and a stone than that between the Chinese and jade. To the people of the Middle Kingdom, jade was not simply hardened earth--but, instead, crystallized magic--a tiny piece of heaven bequeathed by the gods to those of us destined to suffer here on earth. It was literally the link between heaven and earth, the bridge that allowed mortals to cross over into immortality.
For people of the Middle Kingdom, the green stone was valued beyond all else. Gold and precious stones might capture interest in the rest of the world, but, in China, they were simply also-rans. In Chinese athletic competitions, ivory was given for third place and gold for second. Jade was reserved solely for the winners, including high officials in the imperial court, because, as the saying went: "Gold has a price--but jade is priceless."
Within jade's verdant interior, the Chinese saw all that is good with humanity--virtue, purity, justice, humanity, and more. But while jade itself might be priceless, many are willing to extract coin for the honor of holding it in one's hand, or wearing the green stone on a finger or ear. In fact, the search itself has its price.
So what exactly is jade? In the Orient, just about anything translucent and green has been called jade at one time or another. But the Occidental psyche, with its propensity to pigeon-hole, does not sit well with such indifference to definition. Just how does one classify a piece of heaven? If you are Chinese, you don't even bother trying, which was why it was left for the intruders from the West to finally cross all the t's and dot the i's of this most arcane of gem substances.
In 1863, a French mineralogist, Alexis Damour, analyzed the bright green stones from Burma. Finding them different from ordinary Chinese jade (nephrite), he named the "new" jade, jadeite. Today, gemologists apply the term jade only to nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is a fibrous subspecies of the actinolite tremolite series, while jadeite is a member of the pyroxene mineral group. The ideal composition of jadeite is [NaAl(SiO3)2], but it is frequently mixed with diopside [CaMg(SiO3)2] or acmite [NaFe(SiO3)2]. Jadeite rich in iron (mixed with acmite) is a dark green to black color and is termed chloromelanite. Some boulders display this black, chloromelanite skin, which, according to Burmese miners, is bad, "infecting" the stone, and a harbinger of bad luck.

The wild, wild east
Driving into the Uru (Uyu) river valley, we first come to the town of Seikmo (previously called Saing Naung), which is actually bigger than Hpakan itself. Picture Cripple Creek, Virginia City, Fairbanks and every other wild-west town in its heyday and you have some idea of this place. Driving down its dusty boulevard, one almost expects to hear a honky-tonk piano, or see somebody come flying through a saloon window. We are immediately struck by its temporary air--many dwellings are little more than makeshift shacks and almost everything is of recent construction.
Passing along the bustling main street we see signs for Rolex watches and Hennessy cognac, testifying to the tremendous wealth simmering just beneath the dull exterior. Above the tin roofs are satellite dishes; beyond that lie the green hills, splattered everywhere with the brown of mining activity. In places, entire mountain tops are eaten away, as the human quest for the green stone oozes deeper and deeper into the surrounding jungle.
We continue on to Hpakan, which lies astride the Uru River. After a brief stop at the Government guest house, to wash up and check in with the local police, we plunge straight into this green chasm that is jade.

June 5- 7 Hpakan

Greenhorns in Greenland
Upon reaching the mines, the first question any self-respecting gemologist asks is: "By jove and George, how in the heck do they do it?" Meaning, how do miners separate the quite occasional jade boulder from the thousands of others which they also dig up and which look so completely similar that, if you or I had found it, we would simply chuck this potential fortune straight into the neighbor's back yard? This is the question.
Our investigations did put the question to rest, somewhat. Repeated questioning of various and sundry jade traders, cutters and miners yielded up the following pearls of wisdom:

Identifying jade
In separating jade from ordinary boulders, miners look for something which, in the vernacular is called yumm, a fibrous texture. Ordinary boulders show a reflection of mica or sand, while jadeite is smooth, with yumm, and without particle reflections.
In addition to the fibrous texture, jadeite also tends to stick slightly to one's hand or foot under water. It also has a different sound when struck with a pick, as well as having a greater heft (density) than ordinary stones.
Miners also look also something called shin , which, from what we could gather, is the type of sheen seen on schist. Black shin is said to "damage" the stone, apparently being an indication of increased iron content (chloromelanite). They also look for the show points, where the jade color shows through the skin.

Jadeite types
Jade is roughly separated according to the manner in which it is mined. By far the vast majority is recovered from alluvial deposits of the Uru River conglomerate. This occurs as rounded boulders with a thick skin and is termed river jade. In contrast, mountain jade appears as irregular chunks with a thin skin, and is recovered directly from in situ deposits. The green and lavender colors are independent of the deposit type, but red to orange jade is limited to those pieces of jade recovered from an iron-rich soil. The reddish color results from a natural staining of the porous jade's skin.

The business of jade

From the time jade is won in the Jade Mines area until it leaves Mogaung in the rough for cutting there is much that is underhand, tortuous and complicated, and much unprofitable antagonism. In my opinion the whole business requires cleansing, straightening and the light of day thrown on it.
Major F.L. Roberts formerly Deputy Commissioner, Myitkyina

It is said that the jade business involves "luck." That's like calling a lottery ticket an investment in the future. The jade business is not about luck, it's about strapping your hopes and dreams straight onto the rim of the roulette wheel and letting the creator give it a long, hard spin.

A room with a view
U Tin Ngwe, who went from taxi driver to jade kingpin almost overnight, stands atop a small fortune of jade at his Hpakan home. (Photo: Olivier Galibert)
Just how much joss is involved is illustrated by the tale of U Tin Ngwe, one of Hpakan's many lao pan (kingpins). He got his start behind the wheel of a large piece of rolling Japanese steel with a "taxi" sign on top. One day, a local jade trader he picked up offered him a spin of the green wheel, in the form of a grab bag of jade boulders. Picking up each piece, he studied them carefully. "Why not," he thought, as he forked over 3,000 kyat ($23) for the heaviest boulder in the lot, "I feel lucky." He felt even luckier after selling the piece to another trader for 650,000 kyat ($5000). And that trader felt even luckier still after selling the exact same piece for over 3,000,000 kyat ($23,076). "Hmm," he thought to himself, "this jade stuff is interesting." It was so interesting that, today, U Tin Ngwe owns several jade mines and is one of the biggest traders in the valley. When the steel ball finally came to rest, it had stopped at his number.

Shooting craps
Of course, every crapshoot has its losers, as well as winners. None who lived in Bangkok in the late-1970's can forget the story of let's call him Sia Poh, who had invested a small fortune in one promising jade boulder. Many others were also eager to possess it; one went so far as to offer him several times his money. But Sia Poh refused to sell. He would cut it himself and, in the process, squeeze every possible drop of profit from the green stone. Alas, it was not to be. Cutting open the stone revealed but a cheap, ornamental-grade lump, worth perhaps $50. Lady luck had passed him by. In Sia Poh's case, the steel ball eventually stopped right between his eyes--from the muzzle of the weapon with which he blew his brains out.

Be all you can be

For Burma's military, the jade mines represent a big fat pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And a stint at the mines is the payoff for a job well done. The rewards for being stationed there are many, for, in a district where coin flows like water, those positioned directly at the well get to drink to their hearts' content. During our time in the jade mines district, we came in contact with countless military officers, but did not meet a single one who had spent more than six months in the area. You see, when it comes to jade, others must also get their chance to drink.

Judging quality--smoke and mirrors
Much of the mystery about the jade trade concerns just how a trader judges the quality of something encased in a rust-like oxidation skin so dense it hides all traces of color within.
Traders will often wet the surface of a boulder to better see the color lurking underneath. They also utilize small metal plates and penlights. The plate is placed on the surface at a likely spot and a penlight shone through from the side furthest from the eye. This reveals color in the absence of glare from the light.
According to traders and miners to whom we spoke, one looks for something they call pyat kyet (literally 'show points'), which are areas where the skin is thin enough to see through. And if there are no such show points? Heh, heh, heh. If we could answer that one we wouldn't be telling you now, would we?

Down at the saw mill
In an effort to get right down to brass tacks, much jade is simply sawn open; this is the approach used at the government sponsored auctions in Yangon. But as owners don't particularly like their boulders defaced in such a manner, one has to pay to play that game. Parting a boulder down the middle has the added danger that one may cut right through a good area.

Desperately seeking green
Experienced jade traders are said to be able to predict, by studying the outside of the boulder, what the inner color will be, but anyone who has even seen boulders sawn open can prove the lie in that old wives' tale. Even for experts, much guesswork is still involved. Before cutting, traders look for color spots at the show points. Color spots going all across a stone infer that color is relatively consistent across the piece.
Before cutting, the surface is carefully examined to select the best place for sawing. While it is difficult to see through the skin, some cracks can be seen. This is important, as fractures can have a dramatic impact on value. There is no specific formula for cutting--it all depends on individual judgement and the rough's features. In buying, say, a five-piece lot, sometimes all are good, and sometimes all are bad. Much depends on luck, or, as the great 11th-century gemologist, al-Biruni, put it: "God grants honor to some and disgrace to others."

Opium and the jade trade
According to one Bangkok source, mining concessions in the Hpakan area are granted according to the projected value of the jade in the ground. Of course, the best spots cost lots of money, which the (mostly) Chinese mine owners pay to the central government. According to this source, only those with mighty deep pockets get involved and, in these hills, that usually means opium merchants.
This source, who is quite close to one of Burma's top jade traders, told us that the jade business is often simply a sideline. Those in the drug business don't mind putting up a billion kyat (about $7.7 million) and only getting half back, because that half is now "clean" money. They can also afford to stockpile jade, giving buyers the impression that fine stones are more rare than is actually the case.
Those in the drug business also have a ready means to control the miners, many of whom are opium or heroin addicts. Diggers believe that taking the drug will help prevent malaria and other diseases, but it's more likely the drug just eases the pain which digging holes in the ground inevitably brings. In any event, once addicted, the bosses can then easily control their workers, by regulating the supply of the drug.
The cocktail of opium and jade is a highly inflammable one and mafia-type gangland violence occasionally erupts. Just a few weeks before our visit, a major miner (and also, reputedly, a drug dealer) was murdered in Myitkyina. The official version of the killing was that it was the work of a "mad man."
Upon signing the peace agreement, soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were legally allowed into Hpakan for the first time. They didn't like what they saw. Heroin was being openly sold, almost like Coca Cola on the street. But they solved that problem. Rounding up close to 80 heroin dealers, they took them down to the river, put a bullet in the backs of their heads and dumped the bodies into the Uru chaung (river). Heroin is no longer sold openly in Hpakan.

Taxing questions
In all good businesses, it is inevitable that the government should want a piece of the action, and so it is with the green stone. Each jade boulder we saw had writing on it. This is a registration number, along with the weight, signifying that tax has been paid on the boulder. Tax is paid in Hpakan, after evaluation by a government-appointed committee. The levy is 10% of the appraised value, but since many who sit on the committee are traders themselves, valuations tend to be "generous."
Without paying tax, it is theoretically illegal to cut a boulder. But it does not take too great a leap of faith to see people simply cutting boulders without paying tax. In any event, today, almost all the boulders are said to be "legal," meaning that tax has been paid.

A mining we will go
In Hpakan, we hire a car to take us to Lonkin, several miles away. Along the way, we stop at Maw-sisa, among the most active and interesting jade mines in the Hpakan region.
Maw-sisa is, in many respects, the quintessential mine, with jade recovered from alluvial deposits in the Uru river conglomerate. This formation is as much as 1000-feet deep in places, and present mining has just scratched the surface. Thus jadeite hoarders should take note--from what we could see, there is a good millennia or three's worth of material remaining to be extracted.
Each mining claim is just 15-feet wide; to keep from encroaching into the neighbor's area, a thin wall of earth and boulders is left as a partition. When seen from above, the result is spectacular --several square miles of stair-step like benches, resembling nothing so much as a massive archeological dig. But diggers here do not search for mere bones or shards of pottery. Instead, they seek the Chinese holy grail, small pieces of heaven.

Dig it
At Maw-sisa, diggers were mining a black layer, locally termed ah may jaw. While jade is said to be richest in this layer, it can occur anywhere in the conglomerate.
The first step in mining is removal of the overburden, taung moo kyen (literally 'head cap removal'). Since the overburden is also conglomerate, it may also contain jade, so the workers must search this, too. We saw people working about 50 feet into the conglomerate, which is stripped away with primitive tools.
Miners were asked how often they find jade. They said it depends on luck. While some days they might find up to 25 pieces, other times they might go for days without finding anything. In terms of size, some boulders are 200 300 kg, some even as big as a house, but most are less than 1 kg.
At one spot, we saw two people carefully washing a blackish boulder, apparently to see if it was jade. When approached, they quickly tossed it aside, but then went back to it after we left. From a distance we watched. Brows furrowed as they scraped away at it, only to throw it away in the end. Apparently even the miners themselves sometimes have difficulty in identifying the look of heaven.
Walking back through the village, we saw some people smoking opium, while others were busy downing the local whisky. A few meters away there was a sign in Burmese giving some local laws:
1. Do not smoke while walking (to prevent fires, which are common in the area).
2. Do not consume alcohol or drugs.
3. Respect other cultures (people of a variety of ethnic groups live in the area)

. Well, two out of three isn't bad.

Dike mining
It is said that to find a dike is to become an instant millionaire. For whilst ordinary miners flail away in the common soil, only rarely turning up a boulder of jade, the dike is the mother lode itself, a bridge straight to heaven.
In the Hpakan area, several primary outcrops of jadeite have been located, the most famous of which is at Tawmaw. Formerly, miners employed fire and water to break away pieces of the jade. Today, peace has another dividend--dynamite--a godsend when dealing with a rock so tough that a day's worth of drilling might only penetrate 12 inches.
Unfortunately, the road to Tawmaw in the rainy season is iffy. After an hour's worth of radio traffic at the Lonkin military base, we were told that only the first few kilometers were passable. Thus we set off for the mining site of Masamaw, on the way passing through a small village called Kademaw. Later, we visited a mine operated by the NDA, one of the Kachin resistance groups.

Slowly down the river
For over 200 years, man has scoured the banks of the Uru river in search of jade. The keepers are quickly put away, with the others simply discarded, giving the area the look of one large ant hill. Centuries of labor has piled the banks high.
Jade is not the only treasure yielded up by the river. Much gold mining is also in evidence, with the miners utilizing small, portable sluices featuring ingenious bamboo riffles.

Submarine mining
During seasons when the river is high, particularly at Mamon, men dive for jade. Air is supplied via a crude air pump, something akin to a triple bicycle hand pump. While those on land furiously works the pump, the diver hops into the water and searches for jade with the plastic hose between his teeth, all the while hoping and praying those up above don't forget just who's down there.

Friday, June 7, 1996 The road to Mandalay
Until recently, the only way that Hpakan could be supplied was by convoy from Mogaung--fifty or more trucks--along with a healthy dollop of Burmese military might. Fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA is now over, but the struggle continues, this time against nature.
To leave the jade mines, we would take this Hpakan Mogaung road, the "good road," as we were told. Unfortunately, this turned out to be every bit as wretched as the one on which we had come up, only flatter and busier. Just outside of Lonkin, it degrades into a sea of mud, with all manner of stranded vehicles. Coming upon one stuck lorry, which was hooked up to a rather ingenious winch, we asked how long he had been stuck. The answer surprised even us. He had been resting in the same mud hole for ten days.

Jumbo journey
Our journey from Hpakan to Mogaung was as follows: truck, jeep, foot, elephant and truck. Most interesting was the elephant. Two beasts were initially offered, but since one was already on his third "driver," having killed the previous two, it was clear which one to take. As the jumbo knelt down, we climbed aboard.
Comfort is not one of the pluses of elephant travel, but we can say this--it does not get stuck. The driver told us he had purchased the beast many years before for 60,000 kyat ($462), and had recently turned down an offer of three million ($23,076). He also told us the elephant's age: "She's now 21" he said and, with a wink, "still a virgin."
The final leg of the journey was completed by truck. It had one of those fancy do-hickies on the dash, the kind meant to tell you when you are leaning, and when you are leaning too much. In our case, it always seemed to be the latter, but the gauge must have been broken, because even when the little yellow needle had tilted several degrees beyond the scale, we still didn't tip over.


Jade is not the only gem found in these hills. The famous Burmese amber deposits are located in the Hukawng Valley, some 60 miles north of Hpakan, while ruby is had at Nanyazeik, a few miles from Kamaing, on the Mogaung Hpakan road.
We inquired about ruby from Nanyazeik (locally termed 'Nanya') and were told that there is mining, but it has yet to receive official sanction. One Burmese source told the authors that he had seen some ruby from Nanya, and it was good, similar in features to that from Mogok. In Mogaung, we purchased one 0.5 kg rounded piece of low-grade ruby, which was offered as red jade. This was possibly from Nanya

We will not go into the many trials of the rest of the journey. Suffice to say that, in the end, the Burmese jungle spit us out, panting and dusty, at the Mogaung trail head, over 12 hours after leaving Hpakan. Our night was spent at Mogaung's Dollar Lodge, which cost three.

Saturday, June 8, 1996--Mogaung
Considering the large quantity of jade taken out of the ground in the Hpakan area and the tremendous difficulties involved in its transportation, it is surprising that so little seems to be cut on site. But this is the case. Other than one market just outside Lonkin, we saw no cutting in the Hpakan area. Instead, most jade is hauled out for cutting elsewhere.
Mandalay is by far the biggest cutting and trading center for jade in Burma, but there is also a jade market in Mogaung. The morning we visited, some 200 people were involved in cutting and trading jade. In addition to jadeite, the unusual ornamental gem material, maw sit sit, was also on offer. One member of our party (TO) bought a boulder of maw sit sit which weighed over 30 kg.

End of the green line
A hill just above Seikmo looks down upon one of the most remote and inaccessible mining localities on the face of the earth. On this hill stands a 30-foot cross, symbol of the Kachins' predominantly Christian faith. But this is no ordinary crucifix. The color of Jade Land is green and the color of this cross is also green--green like the jungle on the surround hills--green like the stone which has brought us here--green from the hundreds of jade plates that coat its surface.
In the valley below, ant-like figures labor in the river, searching, seeking, hoping to find that one special stone, that green rock which will bring them a slice of heaven right here on earth.
Some might see this search and, indeed, this cross, as a tower of babel, a symbol of man's vain quest for material wealth. But it matters not to those who search for the green stone. The fact is that the green stone exists--no preacher or holy book, be it Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Tao or Christian, can change that.
Is the green stone, as the Chinese assert, a bridge to heaven? Although we had traced the green line to its terminus, all the way to its very apex, we are still unable to provide an answer. But one thing is certain: as long as the demand for jade persists, man will continue to risk all in following the green line. And that line will continue to lead straight to Hpakan.
End of Part 2 1

Editor's note: This is the final installment of the authors' recent journey to Burma's remote jade mines. Although not our usual fare, we hope you have enjoyed it. Let the editors know if you are interested to read other such stories in the future.

Authors' note : Portions of this article were first published in Jewelers' Circular Keystone.

About the authors
Gemologist Richard W. Hughes is one of the world's foremost authorities on ruby and sapphire. His latest book, Ruby & Sapphire (1997, RWH Publishing, Boulder, CO, USA), is the culmination of close to twenty years spent studying these famous gems.
Olivier Galibert, a Hong Kong-based gem dealer and photographer, specializes in fine precious stones and pearls. He spends over half the year traveling throughout Asia in search of the rare and beautiful.
American Mark Smith has resided in Bangkok since the early 1980's, where he operates one of the Thai capital's finest colored stone wholesale houses.
Dr. Thet Oo of Rangoon and Mogok, Burma, is a second-generation trader in precious stones. His specialty is star rubies and sapphires.

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