Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

Digging for the Next Rare Gem in the Valley of Rubies

In a remote region of Myanmar, a country that is estimated to produce 90% of the world's ruby supply, there is a place where the gem reigns supreme. Mogok, about 280 miles north of the capital Naypyidaw, has unearthed some of the rarest and most luxurious rubies including the legendary 82-carat Nga Mauk ruby discovered centuries ago. Last year, the 25-carat Sunrise Ruby set a world record when it sold at auction for $30 million. Today the region is still economically reliant on mining, gem-cutting and jewelry making—giving it the title "Ruby Land." Photographs by Taylor Weidman for Bloomberg.

Mogok rubies are prized for their high quality, especially their rich color. In its purest form, the mineral is colorless—it is the presence of the trace element chromium that gives the ruby its red hue.

A sign welcomes visitors to "Ruby Land," nestled in the hills bordering Shan State. Mogok, also referred to as the "Valley of Rubies," has been dealing in the gems since at least the 6th century.

A ruby mine in Mogok—one of the estimated 1,000 mines operating in the area. Myanmar law allows foreign investors to enter joint ventures with local firms and requires firms to pay royalties on minerals.

One common method is open-pit mining, where vast mounds of soil are collected then machines are used to separate the dirt from precious stones.

Miners primarily use jackhammers and dynamite to break apart rocks, then hoist them up using railcars and pulleys. Some of the larger mines in Mogok reach depths of 1,000 feet or more. Workers typically earn around $200 a month.

Many of Mogok's residents also make a living by hand-panning, hoping to find overlooked treasure in mines' waste water or piles of discarded rock.

One scavenger gets lucky, finding rocks studded with rubies. These can fetch anywhere from $3 to hundreds of dollars at the local markets, depending on the size and quality.

Rubies can be found in the most surprising places in Mogok, including drainage ditches, like this one connected to a mine. 

Once the raw gems are extracted, they are sent to processing facilities for cutting or to gem emporiums in Naypyidaw for sale. Some of the rubies are sent to small artisan workshops in Mogok, where they are cut or "faceted" using non-electric machines powered only by foot pedals before being fashioned into jewelry by goldsmiths.

A man at a market in Mogok shines a beam of light on a ruby to check its clarity. It is impossible to find a flawless ruby as imperfections naturally occur in the crystal, according to the Gemological Institute of America. The question is whether or not those imperfections are visible to the eye.

A local market sells both raw and cut gems. Mogok rubies are noted for their special color described as "pigeon blood" red, but they can also come in various shades from light pink to dark purple.

A USGS report, citing the most recent mineral data, showed a 76 percent drop in Myanmar's annual ruby output between 2009 and 2013—but that hasn't stopped miners from hunting for the next rare and awe-inspiring ruby.