The Champion of Mogok Gemstones - U Han Htun
Interviewer Chresten A Bjerrum
Few, if any have seen more Mogok rubies and sapphires than U Han Htun (59), owner of Stalwart Gemstones Laboratory, the largest private gem lab in Myanmar. He retired as the leading gemologist at the Ministry of Mines in 2008 after working for the government for 31 years. Impeccable in English we had a conversation in Yangon during the early days of January.
What made you spend your life in gemstones?
There was certainly no tradition. I was born in Paris where my father was a diplomat. Later at high school in Canberra in Australia I started trading rocks and minerals. Gemstones got my fancy. It all developed from there. Then we returned to Yangon.
And this is where you studied?
I thought of becoming a dentist or an architect, but settled on gemology. Graduated in 1973 with a BA from Rangoon University. Then continued to study gemology and mineralogy until my father one day said enough was enough. You better get a job. And so I did.
That’s when you started working for the Ministry of Mines?
That part of the ministry was called Myanmar Gems Cooperation at the time. They required that we acquired knowledge in 3 areas. Grading, Appraisal and Mining of gemstones. I started with mining when they sent me to Mogok right away. There I spent 7 years there until 1984.
I was in Mogok to learn about mining and grading of gemstones. How to sort them all out. At the time only 10-15% of the mines were government controlled, the rest in the hands of illegal miners. Today of course it is opposite. 85-90% of the mines are controlled by the government or joint ventures with the government in some form, typically through licensing.
You have to remember gemstones were big things. Much more than today. General Ne Win, the country’s leader at the time, took great interest in Mogok gemstones, particularly rubies. He was always kept abreast of new mines.
The first mine I was involved in was Shwe Pyi Aye, probably the largest man made dark hole in the world. I believe it was 100 yards times 70 yards and 90 ft deep. The problem was that the deposit was in the middle of a golf course. It caused some commotion, but the golf course gave way. From this mine I saw the best ruby I have seen in my entire life. The rough gemstone was 9.92ct and 5.56ct after cutting. I remember it vividly, straight red, flawless, no secondary colors. Just amazing. It was made into a ring and is still in the hands of the ministry.
What types of mines were in Mogok at the time? U Han Htun lights another cigarette.
There were several. Open cast mining was the tradition.
Sluicing was the only type of mining that could continue through the Monson season. Everything else closed down because of water. It is hard for people who have not been to Mogok to understand the enormous problem caused by water. It just peeps out everywhere. So much collapses.
Primary mining was primitive in my days. By hand you made a hole in the rock, filled it with explosives and blasted it off. Miners were killed, many injured from flying rocks. It was quite an art to get it right.
Cave mining was often dangerous. The caves where deep, up to 1,000 ft long. Sometimes there would be no oxygen. We went inside with candles. If they started to flicker it was time to get out, and fast. All very scary. I once fell into in a mine. On my way down I tried to hold onto the timber structures. I finally managed, but only after getting a lot of injuries. Water deposits in the caves were also a problem.
One thing I introduced in some mines was dig-store-dig, not dig-wash-dig which was the norm. If you dig-store-dig you may wash the gravel and look for rubies during the Monsoon season. Much more efficient.
Mining is costly. You use a lot of fuel to pump water, especially if the mine is below the water level. You also need timber to support the pits and tunnels.
I had a great time. Then I returned to Yangon to work at the head office.
What is a Pigeon Blood Ruby?
A very wise old miner once told me that when you look a white pigeon in the eye you will see a distinct red color. This is "pigeon blood", not the color of the blood of the animal. I never saw a white pigeon in the eye. I saw a gray one and the color was the same. The red color has a purplish - blue tint. That is a Pigeon Blood Ruby.
"Rabbit blood" is the color of the rabbit’s eye. It has an orange tint. People often say that the pigeon blood ruby is the best, actually the ones with an orange tint Rabbit’ Blood Rubies are better. This goes for sapphires as well.
Why are colors of rubies so difficult to ascertain?
If you look at a spinal you will see it has the same red color from whatever angle you view at it. Not so with a ruby, you see different red colors as soon as you turn the stone. This is what makes the ruby so interesting. The reason is inclusions built up over thousands of years. The color changes whether you look at the ruby indoor or outdoor, or in whatever weather condition you do so. It also changes with the time of the day. In the morning between 10 and 11 the sunlight has more infrared color giving the stone a beautiful red color. Midday the ultraviolet sunlight changes the color until the infrared color returns in the afternoon. The color also depends on where in the world you look at the gem. A pigeon blood ruby for example tends to look darker in the northern hemisphere than at equator. A wonderful stone, so hybrid and complex.
How about Stalwart Gemstones Laboratory?
I opened it about 14 years ago. We have 5 employees and modern equipment located in the FMI Building next to Scotts Market in the city center.
Who are the customers?
Normally dealers, sometimes miners. Many foreigners as well, from the US, Switzerland, Korea, Taiwan and other countries.
Do you have customers who have been cheated? U Han Htun otherwise serious face lights up a charming smile.
It happens, but only for tiny amounts. Typically a tourist bought a "ruby" on the street for $50, $100, or $200. He thinks he made a coup, but only bought red glass or some inferior reddish stone. Expensive stones are all genuine when we get them. Sometimes buyer and seller come in together.
From time to time we see synthetic and artificial stones. They may be included in bags of gemstones.
What about heat treatment?
We always check for it. Whether it is low temperature treatment at 1,200 degrees celcius or high temperature treatment at 1,900 degrees it is easy to see. Thai jewelers treat stones at high temperatures. We also check for other types of man made improvements of gems.
What effect does heat treatment have on ruby prices?
Simply enormous. A heat treated stone easily looses 70% or 80% of its value. It may look nice and I guess that is what some people want. A good quality ruby can sometimes loose less when heat treated, but even so it may well lose half its value.
Do you ever have problems identifying a stone?
It happens, but rarely. Typically the gem would be very rare. You would only get it once a year or so. A few gems I have seen only once in my life. Rubies and sapphires are 45% of my business, 20% jade. We also see many pearls.
I have studied Mogok gemstones for 31 odd years. With more than 99% accuracy I can right away tell whether a ruby or sapphire is from Mogok. With 70% accuracy I can say from which of the 40 main Mogok mines it comes.
How about African rubies? Madagascar rubies?
I can see they are from Africa, but that is probably all. African rubies are inferior, not very good. Cannot be compared at all with rubies from Mogok.
How about appraisal of gems?
We do not appraise gems at Stalwart, but sometimes I do it myself.
I hand U Han Htun a small, lower quality ruby I know cost about $1,000. How much I ask?
He takes a quick look at it through his triplet and checks it in sunlight at the open window.
$1,000 I would say. Valuation of cut stones is normally quite straight forward. Rough stones are a different story.
Any advice for the novice buyer of rubies or sapphires?
Always look at the gemstone with the light from the behind. This will show you how the gemstone really looks like. Only hold the gemstone up against light if you want to see inclusions. Diamonds can be described accurately, not rubies and sapphires. They are much more complex. It is important to have a good eye for colors.