Important Note: The author: Vincent Pardieu is an employee of GIA (Gemological Institute of America) Laboratory Bangkok since Dec 2008. Any views expressed on this website - and in particular any views expressed by Vincent Pardieu - are the authors' opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GIA or GIA Laboratory Bangkok . GIA takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any content on this website nor is GIA liable for any mistakes or omissions you may encounter. GIA is in particular not screening, editing or monitoring the content on this website and has no possibility to remove, screen or edit any content.
We are gemologists (gemmologists) sharing a passion for gemstones, gemolology (gemmology), gem people and traveling.
You will find in this website gemological expedition reports and some studies of gemological interest.
Visiting many gem mining areas we saw that people in remote mining and trading areas have difficulties to access to gemological publications. As today the Internet can be accessed in most of these gem mining areas and trading centers, the author started to build this website to give gem people living there the opportunity to see the result of the gemological expeditions they were associated in. It is a way to thanks them for their time and collaboration and to help them to get access to more gemological information.
At the same time the author hope that these expedition reports will please the people from consuming countries interested in gemstones and fascinated by their mysterious origins. Our purpose here is to help people facing difficulties to get quality first hand information about gems and their origins to get the information they need through this website and its links.
With our field expeditions to gemstone mines and gem markets around the world, we intend also here to share our passion for photography, gems and our fascination for the work of the "Gem People" bringing gemstones from the ground to magnificent jewelry.
From the gems external beauty to the intimate beauty of gemstone inclusions, from gem lore to the mines, the people and the landscapes gems origin from, we expect to share with you our passion for gemstone beauty.
We also invite you to join us on some gemological forums we are active in as they are convenient tools to get rapid answers to your questions as they are regularly visited by many other passionate gemologists, jewelers, hobbyists and professionals willing to learn more and share their knowledge about gemstones.
Index page: Vincent Pardieu's Blog
About the Author
About me : How did a countryside Frenchman became a "Shameless travel addicted gemologist"? ( Under construction)
Sep. 2005: Madagascar with Richard W. Hughes and Dana Schorr (Will be available one of these days...)
Summer 2005: Gemological expeditions to South East Asia (Vietnam) South Asia (Sri Lanka) and East Africa (Kenya, Madagascar and Tanzania) with J.B. Senoble and Tanguy Lagache with the support of the AIGS, the ICA and the Gubelin Gem Lab:
- Introduction to AIGS/ICA/Gubelin Gem lab 2005 Expeditions
Special THANKS for their support for our field expeditions since 2005:
about gems, gemology, field expeditions, studying gemology, minerals, jade, pearls or jewelry? We recommend these FORUMS where the author is contributing:
Do you want to STUDY GEMOLOGY?
Here are some recommended institutes where the author studied gemology in Thailand ... and was happy about his investment!
For those willing to go further after their gemological studies: Recommended Advanced Gemological Courses:
To finish here are some BOOKS about gemology the author have read and appreciated and would like to recommend to people willing to learn more about gemstones, gemology and the places where gemstones are found:
In December 2001, ten years ago, the author became a gemologist...
This new blog is a little bit unusual as it is not about a place the author visited recently.
When you plan to visit a mine located on the top of a mountain, there are moments and places where it is nice to stop for few seconds, breath. Enjoy the moment and the beauty of the area. You can have a look down to the valley and study the track you have walked, then you look up to the mine and see what still needs to be done... You may also look inside yourself and feel weather you will be able to make it or not.
This blog is about one of these moments.
"The author with U Aung Ko, one of his gemology teachers in 2001 and the Director of the G.G.A. (Gem Genuine Association) gemological school in Yangon, Myanma (Burma)". Photo: Jean Baptiste Senoble, 2006
10 years... It is long and short at the same time. The author hopes that you will find the following of some interest, even if it is in some way very naive and personal. But may be those willing to study gemology and searching their way into the gem trade will find here some reasons not to give up and find some good advices.
This page is dedicated to them and to all the people who helped and mentored the author during the past 10 years.
"The author receiving his G.G. diploma from the hands of Christopher Keenan, then Director of the GIA Thailand school"
Photo: GIA, 2001
Introduction: "Past is Prologue"
The author's gemological studies in South East Asia were the consequence of a long personal quest that the author will present you chapter after chapter in the coming few days and also the beginning of a great personal adventure that will take him to be a gemstone buyer in Burma, a gemology teacher and a lab gemologist at the AIGS in Bangkok, Thailand. Then he will become director of that gemological laboratory. After some work on treatments and particularly the lead glass and the beryllium treatment, he will focus more on origin determination of gemstones starting an ambitious field gemology program to collect reference samples in mining areas. He will then move for 2 years to Switzerland in order to work as a gemologist specialized on origin determination of colored gemstones at the Gubelin Gem Lab in Lucerne. Finally he became GIA's first "Field Gemologist", a position he enjoys each day for the past three years.
Regularly the author is told to be lucky to have such a great job. Well yes. But it was a lot of hard work to become "lucky".
Shakespeare wrote: "Past is prologue...". The reader might possibly wonder why a young countryside French guy like the author decided to study gemology in Burma and then in Thailand? Well as in most cases, there is the long story and the short one.
In the next few days the author will invite you to discover the long one as a series of 10 short chapters (one chapter, one year... 10 years? 10 chapters? Ok, that's a private for a "toon" who might read these lines one day if she has some time to loose). But as not everybody might be interested in the author's detailed long stories, here is the short one: The point is that, even before to get a serious interest for gemology, the author had a deep passion for traveling. Deciding to invest a year studying gemology was a great opportunity to discover at the same time another country, learn not only about gems and gemology but also about gem people, their culture and the gem trade. Now when you realize that most of the rubies and sapphires going into the gem trade weather they are produced from traditional sources like Burma or Sri Lanka or from new deposits in Africa will probably travel one day to Thailand, that choice makes a lot of sense. As I found out later, it was indeed a good move for the simple reason that:
"The gemstone trade is not truly just about sciences, arts, money or even gemology. It is mainly about people."
The author's point is that if somebody is interested in studying wine, the author, as he was born from a wine making family near Bordeaux in France, would recommend him to study in France. Studying wine in Thailand could be great (as studying gemology in France.) but my point is that when you study wine in Bordeaux (or may be Burgundy...), it is a different experience for the simple reason that when you leave your school, you are still surrounded with the wine culture: If you are truly interested in wine, you can then use your weekends to visit vineyards, shop for fine bottles in local cellars, witness the "vendanges" and the following wine making process, meet wine makers and traders, build a network of friends and contacts that might make the difference later for your career, and of course you can also have the pleasure to build your own expertise in wine going for lunch or diner in one of the numerous local restaurants and experiment how good wine is a key component of fine French food and social culture.
In fact while selecting the right place or the right school to study, it all depends on your personality, on the school specificities and your project. If your project is to live in Paris and to find a way to make a career with one of the famous French jewelry brand names like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Dior, Chanel, Chaumet, Boucheron or JAR then studying gemology in France, few hundreds meters from Place Vendome, might make sense, particularly if you find out that several former students from that school are currently working in the company you would like to join. But if you are more on the adventurer side and dreaming about going one day to buy gems in the jungles and the mountains of Asia or Africa, or if you want more quietly to discover gems and at the same time discover what is going on in these Asian emerging economies, then going to study gemology in Thailand for six months might be a great move.
But don't get me wrong: I don't mean that a "smart" choice that fits your personality and your project will be a guarantee for success. The wannabe gemologist will still need to work hard to be successful: Along the road, there will be positive and less positive experiences, but as I repeated to many young people coming in Thailand to start a career in relation with gemstones:
"You will be able to say that you have failed only when you will have decided to stop trying."
In the author's experience knowing what you want to do and taking some smart decisions will definitively help you to success. It is like preparing an expedition in mountains: To be successful in the gemstone trade you will need to schedule and to finance your studies and may be as it was the case of the author you might have to accept to work at the beginning for a very low salary, just to be able to get the experience you need to complete your profile and enable you to get a better position few months or years later... It might surprise some of the readers but it took seven years to the author, working as a gemologist, to be able to get a position with a salary enabling him to save some money at the end of the month while doing what he likes to do. Gemology is a very competitive business, it is difficult to make a living with gems if you don't have a real professional level, and to get it, there is no choice (particularly if you were not born from a gem merchant family) you will have to work hard and not just hard but also very smart... As we know: "Rome was not build in one day", and with gems, experience is really very important. The author's point is that if you don't take the right decisions, working hard, might turn to be more or less useless. Thanks to his mentors, the author got great advices and was able to make the right choices. Thanks to that he became quite successful in what he was doing. Then one day, when things were not very easy, he got the opportunity to be "lucky"... It had been a lot of hard work to get the chance to be "lucky" that day but it was worth it.
Now let's stop here for a while. Tomorrow and each of the next following nice days, the author will post an additional chapter to that blog telling more in details, chapter after chapter, how was able to combine his passions for gemology and traveling and how he became 10 years ago a gemologist. The author hopes that the next chapters will be found useful for people willing to start something in relation with gems. He also hopes that the people spending some time reading that blog will not feel too much bored by that long and quite complicated story...
Chapter 10: Getting a first job and 10 years working as a gemologist. (Scheduled to be released on Jan 23rd 2011)
"See through the eyes of Jean Marc Aubert, one of the author's friends from his time at Bordeaux Science University, here is a funny game related short biography of the author written in French (sorry for the non French speaking visitors), that was published in 2004 in a French strategy game magazine. Courtesy: Jean Marc Aubert"
Chapter 1: From the "Black Prince" to Mandalay.
I got my very first interest for gems while reading the novel by Joseph Kessel: "La Vallee des Rubis". It was about Mogok (Burma) and its rubies. That interest increased later while studying sciences in Bordeaux University (France). It was not really coming from my chemistry studies but from something completely different. Besides studying sciences I was actively involved in the organization of LARPs (Live Action Role Playing Games) with a group of friends. I was enjoying working on creating scenarios for fantasy and historical medieval type events. In such aspects I found that gems were of great interest particularly while I was working on a project based on the "100 years war between France and England". Studying in detail the life of one of my favorite characters, Edward of Woodstock, famous as the "Black Prince of England", I came to learn about the existence of the "Black Prince Ruby". For few weeks I did my best to learn as much as I could about that gem. Its history was already fascinating to me but there was something more: It was just amazing to me that what was probably the world's most famous ruby was not really a ruby but actually a spinel... How come? From that mystery came my very first interest for gemology, rubies and spinels. An interest I never stopped studying since then.
I bought my very first gems in Vietnam while traveling in 1997 near Yen Bai on my way to Sapa. I was approached then by a man introducing himself as a farmer who found some rubies in his paddy fields. He told me that he needed money as his wife was sick and needed some medication. His stones were five nice rough waterworned shining colorful gems. It was like candy to me... Few minutes later I had 5 rubies in my pocket and $500 less. The stones turned to be synthetics.
"The author (right) with Anne Riou (left) and Christophe Gilanton (center) posing in Bagan, Burma in February 1998."
Photo: An unknown Japanese tourist, 1998
In February 1998, as each winter, I was backpacking in Asia with two of my friends: Christophe Gilanton and Anne Riou. They were not really what we could call members of the gem trade. I met Anne in London while I was studying chemistry in UK in 1995 and Christophe in 1996 while I was studying business in Toulouse (France). Anne is now a school teacher while Christophe is working in IT. We were then visiting Mandalay, one of the former capitals of Burma.
I was excited to visit Burma. One of my projects was to visit Mogok, the famous valley of rubies I read about when I was young. Visiting the gem market in Mandalay I had some fun looking at stones and buying another nice ruby, faceted this one, that I paid $100.
For few days my friends and I took two different paths: They had a visit to Hsipaw while I had an interesting solo adventure traveling to Mogok with U Phone Gyi, a Burmese man I met the day before near the Irrawaddy River. That's a very long story but to make it short I will say that few days after that encounter this U Phone Gyi took me to visit some sapphire mining sites near Mogok. There while speaking about gems with a group of Burmese miners and dealers, they asked to see the stone I bought in the market. I learned then that the ruby I bought few days before was obviously "Pyinthi" meaning "French"... What do you mean by that, I asked? Then the Burmese dealers told me that for more than 100 years French are famous to have discovered the way to make synthetic rubies. Thus the Burmese word for "French" is used to describe synthetic gems. Well that was the second time I got cheated. U Phone Gyi told me then few words I like to remember: I had to be careful with gems as if this gem trade can be seen all about love and trust, there are two nasty devils called greed and ignorance messing with it... It was a nice Asian indirect way to tell me that I had been stupid particularly as it was the second time I did such mistake. These 2 days around Mogok were just like heaven to me, but I had soon to return on Earth and we had to escape from the area. Finally we were able to return safely to Mandalay. Waiting for my two friends to return from Hsipaw, I spent my time with that interesting Burmese man meeting gem people around Mandalay and looking at gems with a focus on his favorite gems: Star rubies and star sapphires. Wonderful days...
Later on our way back to Yangon, while sailing slowly on a merchant boat from Bagan to Pyay for days, I took some time to thing about my life and these recent Burmese experiences. I had some great discussions with my friends about what happened in Mandalay and around Mogok. As it happened several times in my life, while speaking ideas came and suddenly I realized then that gemstones were at the junction of everything I was interested in: Adventure, science, art, history, geography, nature, people... I had nevertheless a problem: So far I was cheated twice. Obviously I had to learn more about gems in order to be able to make the difference between genuine natural rubies and synthetics.
Back in Yangon, I was decided to learn more about gems. Visiting the Bogyoke market, I found the book "Ruby & Sapphire" by Richard W. Hughes. That was exactly what I was searching: The introduction "Something of myself" written by the author was an echo to my own wanderings and the rest of the book finished to convince me: Rubies and sapphires were found in many places I was dreaming to visit. I was convinced: Rubies and sapphires were really the connecting point of all the things I liked. The book became my favorite traveling companion when I was traveling around the world, taking tourists to visit Europe and Asia. Each time I had some time I was taking some pleasure to read again this or that chapter and studying it.
"The author posing in Venice, Italy during summer 1999 while working as a tour leader for FRAM, a Toulouse based French tour operator. Some people might note that I had then already by bush hat and my lozenge shaped glasses: That was my way to be easy to recognize by the people in my group in order to minimize the chances to loose somebody."
Photo: An anonymous French tourist, 1998
Chapter 2: A French Jeweler in Italy.
The main problem the author had for many years was that he did not really know what he wanted to do with his life. Meeting young (and not so young...) gemology students coming to study gemology in Thailand, I found that he was far to be the only one in such case:
In 1998 after some science and business studies I was working for few years as a full time tour guide specialized on Asia and Europe. I was very happy with my work and FRAM the company I was working with. I had nevertheless the feeling that it was, for many reasons, just a period in his life. Life was then like walking on a mountain. It was nice to visit so many countries and meet interesting people, but I had the feeling that I had not yet found my place. As I had no real goal, something was missing. In other words, as I was very involved in historical and fantasy type LARPs, I was often feeling (like many other young guys) like a wandering young knight searching for a quest that would lead me one day to some princess or some holy grail.
In summer 1999, a year after my expedition to Burma with Christophe and Anne, I still working as a tour guide for FRAM, I remember a specific day while I was traveling with a group of tourists in Italy to visit Venice, Verona and the lakes of northern Italy. For about one year I had an interest for the gem trade and I was searching (quietly...) a way to start something in relation with gems. When I had some time, I was not missing an opportunity to read this or that chapter of my favorite book: "Ruby and Sapphire" by Richard W. Hughes. A French jeweler who was traveling among my group of tourists noticed these readings. The jeweler came to see me and we had a very interesting discussion. It was one of the great things working as a tour guide: It was not only about visiting many beautiful and fascinating places, but it had also often the chance to meet a lot of people. Some of them had very interesting lives and great stories to tell. They were on holiday. I was their guide. They had some free time and some of them were happy to talk. Often these conversations were very meaningful as at the end of their life, few people have any reason to lie to somebody they will probably never meet again. In that case the author does remember that he told the jeweler about his very naive desire to try mixing gems and traveling. The jeweler said that it would be very difficult in his opinion as if there was an easy way to make a living with gems and traveling, then he would not be a jeweler in countryside France. That was not really what I wanted to hear, but it was something I would often think about during the following years...
He had several interesting points:
He said that
if just the fact of traveling to the source in Thailand, Vietnam or even Burma and buying there gems was enough to make a good living, then pilots and air hostess would be millionaires: They are not.
Of course he said, I could buy some gems here or there and sell them to my friends but his feeling was that it is quite a dangerous idea to build a business model based on making profits on your friends: Just make a mistake (like buying synthetics as the author already did twice...), sell it to a friend and the result can be a pure nightmare: Everybody will probably find out about it. You might then loose their trust and may be also their friendship if you don't deal correctly with the issue. He was preaching a convinced one, as I never feeled comfortable to sell a stone to a friend: Usually I prefer just to offer them the gem they like... Furthermore, it is also important to understand that gems are not food: After few months, he said, when all your friends will all have bought from you a fine gem, you will need to find other customers because they will probably not need another stone...
Gemstones are not salads, he said, if you don't understand that point: You will fail. That was a very good point I would remind since then and that I recently refreshed in association with www.conservationgemology.org on the presentation I gave in May 2011 at the ICA congress in Rio de Janeiro.
But the main weakness he could see in the author very naive project was that the author had no family in the gem trade:
I had Nobody to advise me, nobody to provide me some useful business contacts... No mentor.
He was right: I had a serious problem with that project.
A good book was obviously not enough...
One solution was making a lot of sense:
I had to find a mentor.
Well, that's something easy to say but not that easy to find. Mentors accept to advise you usually if they feel that they are not loosing their time with you. I had then not a real idea about what a mentor could be. One of my friends, who happened to be a serious fan of star wars, was enjoying speaking about the Force, Jedi Masters and their padawans,... Basically his vision of my problem was that I was a wannabe young padawan searching for some Master Yoda to teach him the way to use the Force and to help him to stay away from the Dark Side... The reader might think at that point that the author has possibly some mental problems, but rapidly the author found that it was nice to use that Star Wars terminology. Indeed it was fun and clear but the main advantage is that it is not related to any specific religious background. I found it very useful many years later when I started myself to mentor some young gemologists that my old French university friends and myself like to call my "padawans" as I could explain to any of them independently of their personal religious beliefs what I was meaning in a way that would be seen as fun and acceptable.
Returning to the discussion that day in Italy with the French jeweler, I was starting to wonder about who could be my Jedi Master? Who could spend some time advising me?
Immediately one face came to my mind: U Phone Gyi, the Burmese man I met in Mandalay, took me to Mogok and for several days shared with me his love of star rubies and sapphires.
"The author discussing with U Phone Gyi on January 02, 2000 in Mandalay near the river banks."
Photo: GIA, 2001
Chapter 3: U Phone Gyi.
I decided to return to South East Asia during winter 1999-2000, in order to meet U Phone Gyi, spend some time with my girlfriend and get some additional personal knowledge of Thailand, its people and culture. After some disappointment with my girlfriend, instead to spend the millennium New Year's day with her, I decided to focus on my quest. I traveled again to Mandalay, alone this time, to meet again U Phone Gyi, celebrate with him the millennium and ask him if he could teach me what he knew about gems and become my mentor...
May be at that point I should introduce you U Phone Gyi. That will be a long story but you might find it interesting:
U Phone Gyi was exceptional to me in many aspects. He was very simple in many ways. He had a lot of knowledge but still a tremendous curiosity. He was one of these people from another time who had a life full on unbelievable adventures and who would tell you about them as you would tell your last Sunday searching mushrooms in the woods near your house... He was a kind of poet with an disturbing fascination for light and darkness. Obviously he had seen, lived and possible done a lot of terrible things in his life. He had many shadows in his mind but he was not loosing as occasion to smile, live and laugh. He was usually very serious in all what he was doing: speaking, looking at gems but also sadly drinking and gambling. Extreme in many ways he was nevertheless often very wise. Very educated he was speaking a very good English and Chinese... Weak in appearance he was tough and sharp like a blade of the best steel. He was one of these complex personalities: A survivor of many dark and few bright days and he used to say... What he was telling about his life was just fascinating to me: According to what he told me, he was from a good wealthy Burmese family from Yangon, he studied zoology at the university as he had a passion for natural things. But he was also rapidly involved in politics and joined the BCP a group of communist insurgents operating in Northern Burma. Then under circumstances that are not clear to me he then joined to the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and got married with a Kachin woman. He was later arrested by the Burmese military regime and spent 3 years in jail where he told me to have experienced forced labor. At some point in his life, it is not clear to me today if it was before or after his arrest, he also worked as a jade miner in Hpakant (Kachin state) and as a gem trader around Mogok. Thanks to his knowledge about gems, the nature and the areas along the Chinese border he told me that he was making a living as a small gem dealer, buying gems in Mogok or Mandalay and selling them in Mandalay or in China. He was also working as a translator or as a kind of public writer. He was living what was looking to be a simple life in a small house in Mandalay, between with his wife and his lovely 7 years old daughter. As everybody he had also his share of shadows. Many of them in fact... It was what he was calling his dark side. He was not hiding them to me due to the circumstances of our first encounter:
Meeting with U Phone Gyi on Mandalay river banks... On February 13th 1998, U Phone Gyi found me seated at his favorite gambling spot. If I was simply enjoying the morning on the riverbanks of the Irrawaddy River, writing things on my diary, on his side he was coming to gamble with his friends. But as he told me later,
"Your presence was disturbing for us as we were not feeling comfortable with a young foreigner seated at their table and witnessing our shameful addiction to gambling: You see Vincent, as a foreigner, you are a guest in our country and it is our duty to show me a good image of Burma. We could not let you look at us gambling and drinking as we were willing to do..." So he told me that he came to me with as objective to find a polite way to make me leave the place.
He was a nice educated man, and after a short discussion he noticed that I was wondering about what was going on on these islands I could see on the river. There were some people taking regularly small boats to go there. He then invited me to take me there, not to the most busy part of the island as that place was according to him a dangerous place for a foreigner with its numerous opium dens and gambling places, but instead he could take me to visit the nice village on the north of the island. I had time to loose, I was curious, I was enjoying the discussion and despite the idea that may be it could be a trap, I had a good feeling with that man and I decided to trust him and to visit that nice village. Indeed the village was beautiful and we had a great lunch under a huge flame tree. We spend there three hours together speaking about life. I told him about my deception not to be able to visit Mogok, the famous valley of rubies that I was wishing to visit one day. The place was interesting me as I first knew about Burma after reading the novel "La vallee des rubis" by Joseph Kessel but the day before we had to drop our plans to visit it. U Phone Gyi then told me: "Vincent, if you really want to go to Mogok, we can go there together...I know very well the place and have many friends there". That was the start of a long discussion and the consequence was that following day I was with U Phone Gyi on my way to Mogok, an incredible expedition that I see today as one of the most significant turning points in my life. But telling that story would just be too long for that blog.
"The author while traveling as a young "padawan" near Mogok, Burma, in September 2001"
Photo: Hemi Englisher, 2001
Regularly U Phone Gyi was abandoning himself to that dark side going at night to the Irrawaddy river, its river banks and its islands... He told me that Mandalay was an extreme city. Hot and sleepy during the day, wise and spiritual at sunrise or sunset when the monks were walking along the streets collecting donations or when people were enjoying the last rays of the sun... but also wicked and dark particularly at night near the port and on the islands of the Irrawaddy River where reportedly opium, heroin, gambling, drinking, sex, sweat, greed and misery where blending with passion. According to him despite these darkness still there was hope. Beautiful, rare and durable, the stars were for him truly the gems of the sky. He had a special love for stars: He told me that when life had been very tough for him, suffering in the jungle while he was with the guerilla, or in jail or loosing himself at night near the Irrawaddy, still he could see these stars like distant symbol for hope. Now if the stars from the sky are impossible to catch, you can find stars also in the most precious stones coming from the Earth. He told me that in rare cases the best rubies and sapphires could also display a star. He was convinced that star rubies and sapphires were truly powerful talismans and in wicked places or during difficult times, it was important for him to have a beautiful star stone as a protection. He believed truly that the reason why he was still alive is that the stars loved him. When I told him that I read somewhere that rubies were symbols for health and strength and sapphires for the wisdom and the soul, his eyes shined and he said: Yeesss!
At the beginning of our adventure, I was wondering if he was one of these common crooks searching for tourists to cheat or if he was really that type of man he told me he was. To be honest, I never really knew if he had been indeed a member of that communist insurgent group, but I had the feeling only a incredible story could have produced such a unique character. And despite many concerns, I had a good feeling about him and I had really great time enjoying his presence.
On December 30th 1999 I arrived in Mandalay to meet him again. The stars were probably also loving me as I had no difficulties to meet him again. We had great time together. We talked a lot. We saw many nice star gems. I bought one of them including a beautiful star gem half pink and half white with very sharp and regular branches: The perfect gem to have to celebrate the passing from the 20th to the 21st century. Indeed I did very well with that little gem on January 01st 2000. U Phone Gyi was very happy and during the following days we started building some crazy projects dealing with nature, gems and traveling. When today I think about them I cannot avoid smiling as I was obviously very naive, but nevertheless it was a great period in my life and I learned a lot...
"The author traveling in Mandalay, Burma, with his old buddy Michel Tournerie"
Photo: Greg, October 2001
Chapter 4: A crazy project:
When I came to meet again U Phone Gyi on December 30th 1999, I did not arrived empty handed, I knew his love for star gems and I came with a small precious present: A nice Vietnamese star ruby that I bought during the last visit I had as a tour guide with FRAM in Vietnam. He was very interested by that gem, but not exactly the way I was thinking he would be. The star stone was very nice even if the color was a bit purplish pink. According to him the price I paid for it was not outrageous. He liked the gem, but not only because it was a beautiful little gem, but because he had never heard that quality star rubies could be found outside Mogok. He wanted to know more about the Vietnamese ruby mining areas: Was I able to visited them? No... Why? He asked me. Well, I had no real answer to give him and I was suddently feeling a little bit stupid. He then told me that unlike Burmese people like him as a young Frenchman and I can go everywhere around the world. I was even able to go to Mogok with him... So I could probably go to these Vietnamese ruby mines if I was willing to. If he was me this is what he would do as he was thinking that there could be some very good business opportunities between Vietnam and Burma: If I could find out the source of these gems we could have a good business partnership. Burmese people would pay a very good price for a fine star ruby...
I was feeling incredibly good as the man I was coming to see in order to ask him to become my mentor was more or less proposing to me. As I learned while studying business in France years before: You don't convince people with your arguments, instead you convince them with their own arguments, and you reach the master level when you can set up the things for them to feel that the idea is coming from them. I was just witnessing that. I was telling myself that If I had planned the things, it could not have been any better. In fact I had no hidden ideas with that stone, it was just a present. But a present that turned to be a wise one... The stars were indeed my friends as U Phone Gyi told me regularly! Lucky...
Back to planet Earth, he told me that for our project to succeed I should learn more about rubies. He could teach me about that and also I should learn to speak Burmese, if I could speak Burmese and get my skin more tanned, I could then travel in northern Burma introducing myself as a Gurkha, one of the descendants of the Nepalese soldiers from the British colonial times. The Gurkhas are still living in Burma and particularly in Mogok and many of them are gem dealers. That would be a good cover. For me to learn about rubies, learn Burmese language, get a tanned skin and to get some money, he had an idea that some old friends would describe as quite fun while most of the readers will probably label as completely crazy. But it happened that when he told me about that plan, I was not in Paris or bangkok: I was seated with my old friend near the Irrawaddy river in Mandalay. Everything was different as I was in the Other World, somewhere out of time and reason.
"The author on his way to the Namya ruby and spinel mines with Ted Themelis and Hemi Englisher (on the elephant) in July 2001"
Photo: Sorry but I don't remember, 2001
For me to learn all that at the same time, I needed to be able to spend about a year in Burma. He said that this could be possibly done with the help of some monastery. The plan B was more rock'n roll: We could go north in the remote Kachin state where his wife had some family. In that area, he said, there is no Burmese military. I could stay there as long as i wanted and he could teach me about ruby and even jade... I could learn about how to cut star rubies and to speak some Burmese and Chinese. Now to finance that year and our future projects, he had one of the funniest ideas I ever heard. An idea that now I think as "so Burmese...": We could capture some wild elephants and train them. Then when the elephants would be trained we could travel west through the jungles of the Nagaland to India. There we could sell our gems and also the elephants. It could be a good and quite safe way to have a good starting capital for our project and it would allow him also to have enough time to train me quietly about gems, Burmese and life in the jungle as that knowledge would be very useful for the second part of his plan!
The second part of his plan was involving me to go to Vietnam, make some good connections at the mines and get some good star rubies at reasonable prices. With my knowledge about gem cutting I could know how to make the difference between good and bad gems. Then the idea would be to travel from Vietnam to Yunnan and meet there Mr. Lee, one of his old Chinese friends, from the time he was fighting as an insurgent along the border between China and Burma…
May be he is still alive he said. One of my first tasks, he added, would be to find out about that traveling to Yunnan. Indeed he had no news from his friend for several years, but he could write for me his address near Kunming. If I could go there and pay him a visit, I could convince him to join us for that business. He gave me an introduction letter for Mr. Lee and wrote his address in Chinese at the back of the letter. With that he said I should be able to find my way to Mr. Lee after my arrival in Kunming.
At the end of that visit in Mandalay he introduced me to a miner from Mogok who had knowledge of an interesting book being written about Mogok, the man had a flyer about that book: “Mogok, valley of rubies and sapphires” by Ted Themelis. I found that interesting as Ted Themelis was one of the people associated with the chapter about heat treatment in the book "Ruby and Sapphire" by Richard W. Hughes. According to the flyer Ted Themelis was based in Thailand. I took his email, thinking that definitively I had to get that book.
"The author in Kunming with some "funny" Chinese guys who had fun with snow balls. What was in my mind then? Chinaand myself in two words... But well despite everything I cannot say now that it was not cool. With the wind, the "City of Eternal Spring" was freezing cool!
Note: Some will get with that photo that in Asia it is not easy for guys like the author to find pants with the right lenght for legs... LOL"
Photo: Unkown Kunming citizen, 2001
Chapter 5: Kunming: From naive dreams to cold realities:
Back in Chiang Mai, my first idea was to get a visa for China and travel to Yunnan to see if I could meet that mysterious Mr. Lee. May be we could become friends and work together? I had also an interest learning more about China: So far unlike Vietnam, Thailand and Burma, I had only travelled to China as a tour guide, never by myself. Searching for Mr. Lee could be a good occasion to have some personal experience outside the touristic tracks with China… I had an old interest for the Silk Roads, and for years I had the desire to travel one day from Yunnan to Tibet and then to Kashgar. That could be a great personal adventure to visit these remote places that few foreigners visited. I could give it a try as now I had some good reason to go to Yunnan.
On January 27th 2000 I took a flight from Chiang Mai to Kunming. But there things did not happened as expected. First arriving at the airport while waiting at the immigration I was stolen my wallet. Then the letter from U Phone Gyi turned to be a useless piece of paper. After two days showing around the name and the address I was given by U Phone Gyi, it was clear to me that I had no chance to find that man who was possibly dead for more than 10 years in that huge modern looking city with more than five million people.
Kunming at the end of January 2000 was not really what I could describe as a foreigner friendly city. I was wondering what to do? I could try to scout the way to the Burmese and/or the Vietnamese border, but I had also my old dream: Visiting Tibet and going to Kashgar. I was still a tour guide and with my tour operator I took tourists to visit Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Guilin, Gwangzhou, Hong Kong. Now I was for few frustrating days in Kunming and I was willing to do something different. I was lonely as never I had been as I could not find any friendly person in the city who could speak any of the languages I knew. I got the feeling that it would be nice if I could go to Lhassa and may be from there to Kashgar on the Silk Roads. Reading my old diaries and writing these lines, I'm amazed today about how I was able to get such funny ideas that were not making any sense at all. Anyway, the next day, I found myself traveling on bad roads in one of the worse public bus I ever took. After a night in a scary and really disgusting "shit hole" (Sorry about the vocabulary but honestly I feel that the words are still a little bit soft to describe that place that some of my friends reading these words might rightfully associate with one of the author favorite stories he usually keep for good diners...) I found myself the next morning stopped at a checkpoint. I had no idea about where I was or about what was the problem but I was not allowed to go further. After few hours wondering what was going on at the police checkpoint, the police put me on another bus going in the opposite direction. I had then to spend another night on the disgusting shithole I told you about. Back in Kunming after 3 days for nothing, I was tired, my body was broken after 3 days on bad roads and I had a definition for China in two words: "It Sucks!". Anyway, that was what to be expected when you go to such difficult country as China without even a minimum of planning, with nearly no cash and no good local contact. One of my padawan would call that traveling technique few years later the "Optimization of the luck factor". That day, i wrote in my diary a definition for myself in also two words: "Damn stupid!"
I had only one idea after that complete waste of time: Returning to Chiang Mai and Thailand… The story is much longer and is quite out of subject regarding that blog. But some may find it tasty... So to make it short, the next day I found myself blocked in Kunming for few more days due to heavy snow falls. The people at Thai Airways told me that the plane could not come due to the bad weather. We had to wait for the weather to get better. I was freezing as I had no winter clothes. Furthermore I had not enough money to pay one more night in my hotel. I was hungry and nobody was looking to show any concern about me. After few depressing hours seated on a chair inside the warm office of Thai Airways and wondering what could be my next move, the staff asked me quite roughly to leave as they were closing the office. I was then alone in the snow feeling that I could die in the street and nobody would care about it. Some guys had fun throwing snow balls at me. Thanks to them my pullover became really wet. I asked them to take a photo of us... I was feeling very very cold, depressed, lonely and angry about how stupid I had been to have put myself in such situation. The day was going seriously down, I had just $10 in my pocket and I had to survive for possibly 3 or 4 days here may be more. I had to find a solution as the cheapest hotel in the area was much over my budget... I had then the bright idea to enter one of the best-looking hotels in town: The King World located just near the Thai Airways office. The Force was with me, as I met at the reception an Italian I saw briefly before at Thai Airways. Like me he was supposed to fly to Chiang Mai and was then also stuck here. After few minutes and few drinks, I told him my story and he offered to share his room at the King World with me. Of course I accepted. Suddenly I was feeling again that I was really a lucky bastard! But I had also the certitude that I had seriously to wake up and to be more serious, if I wanted to be one-day successful in my life. No more "Mai Pen Rai" type expeditions: If it is Ok to make mistakes, it is not ok to repeat them. I had been lucky, I had survived... I had now to learn from that failure.
"The author With Jerome Garcia (alias "Grand Jesus") and Julie Capitrel in Bagan, Burma"
Photo: Ludwig Aymard, July 2000
Chapter 6: Books, letters, hope and shadows...
Back in Chiang Mai, I decided not to give up on my projects. I continued visiting gem merchants and jewelers in the area, and went also to send an email to Ted Themelis in order to see if I could buy his book and may be (let's be bold...) meet him in Bangkok.
I was surprised to get very rapidly an answer and on February 21st 2000, I spent half my day discussing with him in his apartment in Bangkok about my experience with U Phone Gyi near Mogok... First he was feeling that probably I never went there, but then as I was able to provide him many details about the village I visited, I was able to convince him. We had then a great discussion. The book about Mogok was not yet finished. He was still working on it. I bought his other book about the "Heat treatment of ruby and sapphire"... I had no money in my wallet to pay it but he let me go with it. It was greeat from him to trust me. Few weeks later he was surprised to receive by the regular mail, a letter from me containing a $100 bank note carefully placed in a sheet of carbon paper...
We remained in contact and in July 2000, on my way again to Burma with three friends (Jerome Garcia alias "Grand Jesus, Julie Capitrel and Ludwig Aymard), I passed to see him before to return to my "other world" as I was then calling Burma. He asked me to help him with something in relation with his coming book about Mogok: I had to hand carry for him two letters to people in Burma and return with some photos to illustrate the book. Of course I was happy to help and I went to Burma with my friends and the two letters. I had no idea yet that these two letters would completely change my plans and probably save my project!
As soon as we arrived in Yangon we took the train to Mandalay. My friends wanted to experience real Burma, I gave them a 30 hours long experience about Burmese railways. It was tough as we sat on hard wood in the ordinary class. In Mandalay we settled in my usual guest house and we went of course to meet U Phone Gyi. I was quite excited to introduce that character to "Grand Jesus", one of my old LARP friends. We found him not really at his best: Shadows, in his eyes, he had. I told him briefly about the Yunnan fiasco and that in my opinion the whole project would probably not be as easy as he was thinking. He was obviously not in one of his best days. He was much more skinny than before. Obviously the dark side was eating him slowly. He was hearing my words more than listening to me. He was not living anymore with his Kachin wife and his daughter, and the elephant project was obviously not anymore a project. Shadows... We talked nevertheless about Mogok. He told me that he was planning to spend some time in the south of Mogok in an area controlled by the South Shan state Army, another insurgent group he had, it seems, some good connections with. He added that one of his good old friends was one of the local leaders of the SSA. A mysterious man U Phone Gyi was... He told me that within few days he was planning to visit that friend and he would ask him if we could spend winter there. From there he said, we could go to Mogok through the jungle (as we did before) and he could teach me all the things I was needing to know about star rubies. I had a bad feeling about all that: May be I was then becoming wiser? I was not thinking so as in the past my feelings had been usually as useful as my thinkings... But that day since the beginning of that meeting I had the feeling that something was wrong, and later my friend "Grand Jesus", told me that he was also sharing that feeling.
Was he going too often and too deep at night near the Irrawaddy in that "Heart of Darkness" of his? I was wondering... Unlike with our previous encounters, this time there was not much of that cheerful complicity I was used to. We were distant... He was here but somewhere I had the feeling that the U Phone Gyi I knew was far away. We left each other too rapidly that day as I was not alone but traveling with three of my friends. I was hoping that I would meet him again few weeks later as I was expecting to return to Mandalay. Hopefully we would have then more time to speak a little further about some projects in relation with gems. I was hoping that we could have again some great time as before when he was far away from his shadows...
I was wrong.
"The author (center) with U Kyaw Thaung (left) and gem merchant and spinel lover Hemi Englisher (right) in Yangon"
Photo: Ko Htun Htun, probably around February 2001
Chapter 7: An opportunity called "U Kyaw Thaung".
After Mandalay we continued our visit of Burma spending some great days in Bagan. Finally we reached Yangon. It was the monsoon and it was raining night and day. Everything was wet. Our money was going seriously down. We had to stay in a cheap hotel near Sule Pagoda were we had to defend our room against moisture during the day and at night against the rats that were ruling the corridors, the kitchen and the bathroom. I was happy to leave the hotel in order to go to deliver the letters Ted Themelis gave me.
The first letter delivery turned to be just a formality: I met the lady at the Bogyoke market and the whole story took less than two minutes. The second one turned to be a very different story: I went to visit a man named U Kyaw Thaung. He was a gemstone merchant from Mogok specialized in crystals specimens and spinels. He was living now very far from the beautiful Schwedagon pagoda. He welcomed me in his house, took the letter from Ted with a great smile and invited me to take some tea while he was asking his nephew to get the photos Ted was asking to publish in his book. As we sat in his living room he said something I will remember forever:
"Let's talk about gems!"
We talked about a lot... After about one hour he came to me with the following proposal: He wanted his nephew to study gemology in English, he would have like him to go to study at GIA in Bangkok so his nephew could become friends with some foreigners, but for Burmese people it was difficult to get a passport and travel abroad. So speaking to me his idea was that he could help me to come to study gemology in Burma with his nephew. I could study gemology each morning with his nephew, spend some time after that at the gem market, then may be learn how to cut star rubies and sapphires and in exchange I could teach him how to better use his new computer. He added that one of his good friends, U Aung Ko had a gemological school near Sule Pagoda called the G.G.A. (Gem Genuine Association). The school was very small but U Aung Ko had a great personal gem collection, one of the best collections of Burmese gems in the country. So studying there I will see a lot of interesting stones... U Kyaw Thaung said that the "Associate Gemologist" diploma at the GGA would take me about 4 months to complete. He asked me to give him a phone call few days later to confirm if I was interested, on his side he will see how things could be possible with the school and the Burmese authorities as for a foreigner staying several months in Burma was not very easy. I said that if that could be possible then I would very seriously think about it but I knew already that I would not miss that opportunity.
I had a very good feeling with the U Kyaw Thaung. He was honest looking, and very friendly. A little bit like with U Phone Gyi at the beginning. There were no shadows in his eyes that instead were sparkling with intelligence. He was looking very motivated by that idea and I had the feeling that he would really do the necessary to find a way for me to be able to come and study in Yangon.
On the way back to Sule pagoda, despite the rain and the depressing moisture, I was feeling incredibly lucky, happy and full of energy. My good star was obviously back! If things were turning fine, to have carried that simple letter to U Kyaw Thaung could become a life changing event, particularly after the Kunming experience that had suddenly become a forgotten story. The idea to come to spend four or may be five months living in Yangon during the next winter was a pure delight as I was truly in love with that country and its gem people. Furthermore , staying in Yangon I would probably be able to visit Mandalay sometimes and meet U Phone Gyi again. Obviously it will be a great opportunity to learn more about Burma, its gems and its gem people. I was feeling back on tracks: New tracks. Good tracks!
Back in Bangkok, I told Ted Themelis about U Kyaw Thaung proposal. He confirmed to me that U Kyaw Thaung was a very nice guy, and that I was very lucky to have been given such an opportunity as, to his knowledge, no foreigner had ever studied gemology in Burma since the colonial times... He added that it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to study there as countries like Burma and Sri Lanka can be seen as gemological "holy lands" with a deep and ancient gem mining and trading culture. Obviously I had nothing to loose as after these five months if I had the feeling that the gem trade was not for me I could return to my life as a tour guide, but in his opinion studying at the source in Burma was a great way to start a career in relation with gems. Music to my ears...
Few days later I phoned to U Kyaw Thaung. He told me that he had arranged the things and that I could definitively come to Yangon as soon as I was ready. I decided nevertheless to return in France to work for FRAM during the high touristic season from August to October as expected by my company. I would be able to save some money to finance my studies and get ready while U Kyaw Thaung would have the time to arrange everything. Then I could return in Yangon to study during winter 2000-2001.
We were both very excited.
"The author using his GIA Dark field loupe in order to select from U Kyaw Thaung stock some rubies and sapphires from Mogok with interesting natural inclusions for his collection"
Photo: Dorothee Perrot, Dec. 2003
When I asked if I had to bring anything for my studies, he told me that I had indeed to get few tools as gemological tools and books were difficult to get in Burma. He advised me to get to buy the "Photoatlas of Inclusions" by John Koivula and Dr. Gubelin, a book he heard a lot of good things about and also to get the same type of loupe as the one he got recently from one of his best customers: Bill Larson, a famous American gem merchant. That special loupe placed over a torchlight was called a "dark field loupe". That pocket microscope made by GIA was a wonderful instrument to check rubies and sapphires in the field. Using it a knowledgeable gemologist would be able to identify most synthetics and treated stones... That was a very convincing argument for a guy who so far had bought only synthetic stones...
The next day I gave my first visit at GIA Thailand. I bought on the spot the "Photoatlas of Inclusions" and a GIA "Dark field loupe"... The book was the most expensive I ever bought and the GIA made loupe was not cheap either. But eleven years later I still use the same dark field loupe each time I go to the field, and the Photoatlas is still one of my favorite book. I've no problem to say that the "Photoatlas of Inclusions" and the dark field loupe were truly with "Ruby and Sapphire" the best investments I ever made.
Back in Europe I continued for few months working as a tour guide and saving as much as I could in order to finance a possible change of career. To be honest I was already saving money for about five years in order to preprare my future and now I had the feeling that I had enough money to invest in studies for a couple of years.
In November 2000 I returned to Thailand. I met briefly Ted Themelis who gave me some new mission to carry on while studying in Burma and I took my flight to the other world...
Some of my friends or members of my family were of course a little bit worried to learn that I was planning to study in a country ruled by a military dictatorship with a really bad reputation. On my side, I was happy as few times before and full of hope in my future.
"The author on his way to study gemology at the G.G.A. in Yangon, Burma."
Photo: Ko Htun Htun, 2000
Chapter 8: Studying in "The Other World"
Arriving in Yangon beginning November 2000, I was welcome by U Kyaw Thaung and his family. U Kyaw Thaung Nephew: Ko Htun Htun and I went right away to register at the GGA.
The GGA School was located near Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. It was a small school with two classrooms: Our class with Htun Htun and I were in a small room with Daw Than Myint as teacher. The second class was composed of about 15 young Burmese students. It was very simply furnished and very lively. The focus of the school was to teach to students how to identify gems in Burmese market. Few instruments were available: I remember that we had a demonstration about how to use a refractometer, but then as the school had not enough liquid we never used again that instrument. I was quite frustrated at the beginning but our teacher was repeating us with wisdom that in market conditions, the best instrument we should rely on was ourselves. It was meaning that we should come to the market with as much knowledge as possible, and then we had to learn how to observe the gems in order to put that knowledge into practice. Getting knowledge was fine but getting knowledge and a lot of practice was much better. To emphasis on that every Friday the school was organizing a gemological competition: The only instruments available for the challenge were a 10x loupe, a dichroscope, a polariscope and a glass of water. It was team type competition and we had 10 to 15 stones to identify. It was very fun and helped to motivate the students to learn. Nevertheless the results were quite predictable as the team that had the chance to have Htun Htun as a member was nearly sure to win.
The fact was that Htun Htun as many young Mogok people started learning about gems as he was five years old. He was then going with his grandmother to “Kanase” at the gem mines: There he spent hours searching for nice little gems in the left over or the tailings. In 2000 he was now 25 years old. That was meaning that he had already 20 years of experience with gems meaning that he knew already all the stones by instinct and experience. I was 31 years old and if I knew most of the course by heart my whole experience was more or less limited to the fact that I had been cheated twice... Practicing the gem market game conditions besides Htun Htun was sometimes very frustrating as even if I knew all the theory, if we had let’s say four red stones in front of us: a ruby, a spinel, a garnet and a zircon, then in less than the time necessary to spell their name he was able to identify each gem correctly without instrument just looking at the gem and playing with it and the light in his fingers. For me despite my theory knowledge, they were just four red stones that were looking pretty similar.
"How can you know that this is a spinel?" I would then ask commonly.
"I don't know, Vince. It's just obvious to me". He would typically answer.
Well, that was not really what I was willing to hear. Studying with Htun Htun was a permanent challenge and I do remember of some occasions where I was feeling hopeless. But it was great as Htun Htun was all the time very kind and helpful with me. Practicing each day, I slowly understood how to study the gems and use my knowledge. Working hard each day, never missing an opportunity to see more gems, to meet gem people and learn more, I improved rapidly. After two months of daily practice I was also making a lot of progress and I was not anymore one of the weakest on the Friday challenges.
"The Schwedagon pagoda in central Yangon, few minutes before sunrise."
Photo: Vincent Pardieu, 2003
In Yangon I was living like a chicken: Waking up with the sun and going to sleep when night was falling. The point was that most of the time in the area I was staying, there was no electricity in the evening and at night. My days were starting early around 6am, sometimes earlier when the nearby temple was using its loudspeakers. I was then usually going to Schwedagon Pagoda as the atmosphere there was beautiful in the morning. The place had something truly magic and still now when I visit Yangon I enjoy visiting Schewedagon for the sun rise. I had also my habits at a small restaurant near the huge gold covered pagoda. There they were serving a delicious Mohinga. A typical Burmese fish soup with rice noodles.
I was then usually walking to U Kyaw Thaung place in order to meet Ko Htun Htun, take a second breakfast and get ready to go to the GGA. Usually we were going there using the local bus. It was nice and many Burmese were surprised to see that tall foreigner dressed as a Burmese and going like them studying. The school was usually finishing around lunch time. Usually with Htun Htun we were taking a lunch near the Bogyoke market and from there I was often going to visit its gem market and numerous gem shops. I had soon the habit to seat in front of U Kyaw Wanna FGA Lab. There I was playing chess, looking and learning about gems and crystals. Then I was returning to U Kyaw Thaung place to learn how to cut star rubies and sapphire with U Myint Lwin the cutter of U Kyaw Thaung. I have to admit that I was not very good at that. In fact I preferred to teach him about how to use his computer, speak with him or study stones from his stock. Then after an early diner with all U Kyaw Thaung, I was returning home to study and then sleep as soon as night was falling as I could not read anymore. Life was very simple and my days were quietly busy.
After few weeks, when things were well settled down, I took the night bus to Mandalay in order try to meet U Phone Gyi to tell him about my life in Yangon studying gems. It may sound weird to people reading these lines in 2012, but in 2000 in Burma mobile phones, emails were not very common and U Phone Hyi was not the type of man to have a telephone.
When I arrived at his small wooden house I found it closed and for two days I was not able to get any news from him. I was thinking that I was probably in Mandalay at the wrong time and possibly he went for business to Mogok or the Chinese border. While visiting the jade market on my second day in Mandalay, I met one of our common friends. Asking about U Phone Gyi I learned that my old friend died few weeks ago in a local hospital. Asking what happened to our friend, I was told that he died from AIDS but here that was not something to say in Burma those days: Obviously nevertheless U Phone Gyi was going too much to the Irrawaddy and the shadows finally took him...
That was a shock, as I was never thinking that he could be sick with AIDS. It was also the first time that one of my close friends died from AIDS. But somewhere it was so obvious: His shadows, his desire to live every instant, the fact that he was afraid of nothing. Suddenly with that new perspective, I understood many things about my old friend and mentor.
The shadows took him.
On my way back to Yangon during the 20 hours long travel by local bus, I had the time to think about him, his life, the time we spent together, our projects and my future: Life is short. On that planet we have only a limited amount of time to do what we like, we should not waste any of it doing what we don't except for some very good reason. I was already 31 years old, I was still healthy, but my feeling was that I had nevertheless no more time to loose. I really had to work very hard now if I wanted to be successful in 10 years as a gemologist!
I had definitively also to be careful about the dark side of the Force. I had to stay away from the shadows of Bangkok or of the Irrawaddy.
"The author working on his notes outside U Kyaw Thaung house in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)"
Photo: Not really sure, 2001
Back in Yangon, I dedicated myself more than ever to my studies. I was convinced that it was time to work hard and dig my hole. I had just no choice, as if I wanted to get the respect from the local Burmese dealers I was meeting everyday at the gem market, I could not mistake for long a ruby for a spinel.
Living among U Kyaw Thaung family, I realized the chance I had as truly I could not be in a better place than among a gem family to learn about gems and the gem trade. With U Kyaw Thaung, I had a natural new mentor. Thanks to him and his friendship, I was immersed in a wonderful gem culture. For four months, I was not only able to study gems, but I could also meet many Burmese and foreign gem merchants coming to buy gemstones in his house. It was fascinating for me to meet in Burma, in the office of one of their suppliers people like Bill Larson, Hemi Englisher or Andrew Mc Grath. I learned a lot from them comparing the way they were negotiating with U Kyaw Thaung and looking at gems. We often some great discussions and thus I was able to widen my interests and understanding for other gems than just rubies and sapphires. Soon I got a fascination for crystal specimens, for inclusions in gemstones and for spinels... I started to collect small crystal specimens and checking with my darkfield loupe thousands and thousands of small stones from U Kyaw Thaung stock, in order to identify their inclusions using the “Photoatlas of Inclusions” I had invested in, I started soon a collection of rubies and sapphires selected carefully for the quality of their inclusions.
Finally as Yangon was an important gem trading center, I was also able to witness some very interesting events:
First, again with U Kyaw Thaung support, I was able also to attend to the Emporium: The official sales organized by MGE (Myanmar gem Enterprises) of the stones like Jade, rubies, sapphires mined from the government run mines. Besides to auction sales of the government gems, many private Burmese traders were also selling interesting gems. Searching around I found an interesting but unusual star ruby that I bought thinking that possibly I could make a profit selling it later in Paris.
I had the chance to live a small gem rush as in December 2000 we heard in Yangon that several thousands of miners from Mogok and Mong Hsu were moving to a swampy area called Namya, located between Myitkyna and the famous Hpakant Jadeite mines. At that time gem mining areas where out of reach from foreigners, and thus I could not visit Namya. But looking at gems in the market in Yangon and speaking with traders returning from the new areas, I could rapidly learn that the main products were rubies that could be as good as the best Mogok stones. Unlike what is found in Mogok or Mong Hsu the deposit was completely of the alluvial type and thus many other gems were associated with rubies including a very special one that soon became one of my favorites: Namya hot pink spinels. Candy to my eyes...
These were four incredible months.
In March 2001, I finally completed my studies and graduated from the GGA... I returned then from Burma to Thailand with more than just a diploma in my hands and few gems in my pockets: I had now deeply convinced to have found my way and I definitively wanted to go further into gemology.
"Left to right: The author's main instructor at GIA Thailand Mon Mon, Christopher Keenan then Director of GIA Thailand, Thu Vannaxay and the author"
Photo: Not really sure, Dec. 2001
Chapter 9: Paris, the GIA Thailand and first experiences about gemology in the field.
I returned to France for few months with some stones I bought during my studies in Burma. My idea was to see if the idea to start a business as a gem merchant between Burma and France was making any sense. I had one parcel of 30 small and nice star rubies and sapphires all carefully selectedthat I got from U Kyaw Thaung and also I had the five carats star ruby I found at the Emporium.
In Paris I was joined by one of my old friends from university: Pierre Emmanuel Barba. We were thinking that maybe we could that a gem trading company together: The idea was that I would focus on purchasing in Burma while he would focus on sales in France. The adventure did not started very well as with our first shipment between Thailand and France we got an issue with the French customs. Then we spent two days together visiting gem merchants in Paris and then around Bordeaux. The best we could say was that the test was not really convincing. I remember a particular reaction from a jeweler looking at our star sapphires:
"Vous savez, le cabochon c'est pas folichon!" (the French speaking readers will appreciate...).
The only gem merchant in place Vendome who received us to see our star ruby got suddenly afraid when he learned that the stone had not being properly imported in France and nearly expulsed us from his office. Rapidly we found out that we had still a lot of things to learn particularly about the trading aspects: How to import the stones? How to get paid?
In fact we found out that things were just incredibly more difficult than what we expected. I also found out that it was better not to tell too much about my studies in Burma as such an unusual background was seen as very suspicious more than anything else. In fact soon I found that the best was not to speak at all about it as my Burmese diploma had absolutely no recognition in France. To be able to present myself as a gemologist and to be able to make Parisian type gem traders feel more comfortable with me the best would be to get a gemological diploma with more international recognition that my obscure Burmese one...
Learning about gems in a place like Burma was a wonderful experience. But it was obviously not enough. Back in Bangkok I returned to meet Ted Themelis. I told him about my Parisian adventure and he advised me to study in Thailand at the GIA in order to get a diploma with a much better recognition. In his opinion I could also benefit a lot of these 6 months studies in Thailand to learn more about treatments and synthetics as that was not something that was covered by my studies in Burma. Studying at GIA in Thailand I would have the opportunity to visit regularly the week end gem market in Chanthaburi, the border gem trading centers like Mae Sot and Mae Sai. Furthermore Bangkok itself was a major gem and jewelry trading center with hundreds of gem trading companies located around Mahesak and Surasak areas between Sathorn, Silom and Surawong roads. Finally studying in Bangkok I could attend to the Bangkok Gem Show organized twice a year in February and September by the TGJTA (Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association), a great professional show attended not only be local traders but also by merchants from all over the world.
After that deceiving experience trying to sell these Burmese gems in France, I had to take a serious decision: I could continue that project in relation with gems or I could forget about it and continue working as a tour guide. After few more tours with FRAM in Italy and Portugal, I decided that it was better to fail trying to follow my dreams than to have regrets one day not to have at least seriously try. Ted arguments about studying at GIA in Bangkok were very convincing. I sold then most of the things I had in France: My car, most of my books and even one of my hunting bows. Then I took then again a plane ticket to Bangkok to study at GIA Thailand.
Except for short visits, since then I never returned in France.
Arriving in Bangkok I started my studies with great enthusiasm. Studying at GIA was great as the classes were modern, I felt particularly in love with the great microscope we had, that were so much better compared to the old one we had to share at the GGA. The approach and the focus of the studies were very different from what I had at the GGA and thus I was enjoying the class a lot. I was also spending a lot of time after my classes with Ted Themelis. He was my new mentor and I was following his advices as so far they had turned to be great. About twice a month, when I was not too busy with my homework, I was traveling to Chanthaburi, Kanchanaburi, Mae Sai or Mae Sot in order to get some additional experience from the local gem markets. Each time I went alone as my classmates preferred to spend their time partying in Bangkok, going to the beach or were working for their families... Most of them were the sons or daughters of members of the gem trade. I was not. Unlike in Burma, I had nevertheless already some gemological knowledge and I could have fun right away competing with my strongest classmates and particularly Kobi Sevdermish from Israel and Robert Rossberger from Germany. It was very fun. Another big difference between the GGA and my class at GIA Thailand was that at the GGA I was the only non Burmese. At GIA Thailand I do remember that the very first impression I had of my class was: What is that zoo?
My classmates were from Germany, Israel, Lebanon, Italy, Texas, Singapore, Burma, Brunei, Vietnam, India and Thailand. None of us except a young Thai couple and the Vietnamese lady, who had also a French passport, were from the same country. It was just great at the class was at the image of the international gem trade in Bangkok. The focus of most of my classmates was about doing the necessary to get their diploma and enjoying their time in Bangkok and Thailand with their classmates.
On my side, things were very different as I had to find a job rapidly after the end of my studies in order to be able to survive. I spent a lot of time after my class with Ted Themelis, visiting him often. Away from Yangon and U Kyaw Thaung, Ted became my new mentor. We became good friends and he gave me numerous good advices. About a month after the beginning of my studies, in July 2001 he proposed me to join an expedition to Burma he was planning in the next few days: Mogok was still out of reach but the Burmese authorities were now allowing foreigners to travel to the Hpakant Jade mines. On the way we would be also allowed to visit the new Namya ruby and spinel mining area. To reduce the costs of the expedition and help him to collect data, he offered me to join. The opportunity was too great for me to start to worry about the money or my study schedule. Immediately I said YES! As my results at GIA were very good, I was able to negotiate within few days with Christopher Keenan, then Director of GIA Thailand, the possibility to miss the class for one week. Thanks to Chris understanding, I was soon on my way back to the “Other world”.
"The author assisting Ted Themelis to collect data visiting sapphire miners north of Mogok on the way to Barnardmyo"
Photo: Hemi Englisher, Dec. 2001
That expedition was like a journey to heaven for me. Besides Ted Themelis, Hemi Englisher, a very experience gem merchant I met Hemi while studying in Burma, was part of the expedition. He was very interested in Namya hot pink spinels. To go to the Jade mines we had to travelled to Myitkyna, the capital of the Kachin State. To save money I decided to travel by train from Yangon to Mandalay and then Myitkyna. After a two days long epic journey, I arrived just on time to sleep few hours before out early departure from Myitkyna.
We left early in the morning with a joint escort from the Burmese military and the KIA (Kachin Independance Army) one of the former insurgent group that had then a cease fire agreement with the Burmese military regime. We travelled west for half a day to reach Namya. It was quite something for me as the place was the first gem mining area I really visited. In July 2001, about six months after the beginning of the rush, we were the very first foreigners to ever visit the area. To reach the mining area at Seboh we had to travel for several hours through a swampy jungle to reach the mining area. Ted and Hemi were riding an elephant while on my side as I was short in cash I decided to walk like the soldiers traveling with us. Despite the difficulties we reached the mines: I was in heaven!
After Namya we continued on an epic journey to Hpakant and the jade mines on a very dusty dirt road. The track was scary but after four hours as our bodies was asking for mercy we reached Hpakant. As assistant for Ted and Hemi, in the following days I did my very best to help collecting GPS data, photos, videos and samples. We visited different type of mines, from open pit to underground operations. It was impressive and truly a wonderful experience.
Later in September 2001, as Mogok was also open to foreigners, Ted and Hemi proposed me again to join them for another Burmese adventure. Ted wanted to collect more data for the second volume of his book about Mogok. Again as my results at GIA Thailand were very fine, Christopher Keenan allowed me to miss some class for nearly 10 more days to allow me to join that gemological expedition.
After few days in Yangon and Mandalay to prepare the expedition I could finally visit the wonderful "Ruby Land" I was hoping to visit with U Phone Gyi: The very place I was dreaming to visit since the days I read the novel by Joseph Kessel "La Vallee des Rubis". After traveling one day from Mandalay we spent three full days visiting mines from dusk to down with the help of a man that was to become a great friend: Dr. Saw Naung U. Days were long, as we wanted to visit as many mining site as possible, we never stopped for lunches. There was just so much to do before to leave. The days were long and tough but again: I was in heaven!
Thanks to these two expeditions working as assistant for Ted and Hemi, I learned a lot. Not only about Mogok and Burmese gems, but also about gemological expeditions and how to collect data in the field. That knowledge was to become very important few years later when I started my own expeditions to gem mining areas.
In December 2001, 10 years ago, after six great months studying gemology at GIA Thailand, I finally got my G.G.
That was the start of a new adventure as I had then to search for a job.
"The author with behind him Mogok and its valley from the view point on the way to Momeik. That was the achievement of an old dream and a good project. Three months after that photo, he got his G.G. diploma from GIA Thailand and was ready for a new adventure: Getting a job!"
Photo: Angelo Themelis, Sept. 2001
See you in few days for the Chapter 10: Getting a first job and 10 years working as a gemologist. (Scheduled to be released on Jan 23rd 2011)
All the best and best wished to all of you for 2012!
This article written by the author in association with Richard W. Hughes and Edward Boehm was first published in InColor, Summer 2008, pp. 10–18, the magazine of the ICA (International Colored stone Association).
With that article the author wanted to share his old interest and understanding of spinel, a stone that he discovered while studying gemology in Burma, living with a Burmese spinel dealer and then working for a short while as a spinel buyer for a great spinel connoisseur: Henry Ho.
A visit to the Orient Pearl cultured South Sea pearl farm in Mergui, Burma (Myanmar): (Dec. 08 to Dec.13, 2007):
Abstract of the complete report available on fieldgemology.org : This report presents the field trip Vincent Pardieu and Christian Dunaigre, then gemologists at the Gubelin Gem Lab, Lucerne Switzerland, had with Kham Vannaxay (Sofragem, Bangkok, Thailand) to the Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd south sea pearl farming operation in the Mergui archipelago from Dec 08 to Dec 13, 2007.
1) Introduction: A rapid presentation of the Mergui archipelago, its importance for the cultured pearl industry and a presentation of some key people I want to give some very special thanks to have helped us to visit Mergui.
2 ) From Mergui to Ravenshaw island, a cruise through the Mergui archipelago: From Mergui harbor we had a 10 hours cruise on the Mergui archipelago, a remote and difficult to access tropical archipelago located in the south of Burma on the Andaman sea. It was a wonderful visit of one of the last archipelago still out of range of any tourism industry. We passed numerous beautiful Burmese fishing villages with their wooden houses and golden stupas, passed the remote "marble islands" where bird nests are collected. Sailing in the archipelago from one pearl farm to another gave us also the chance to meet the sea gypsies of Mergui: The Salon people living a nomadic life of their small boats.
3 ) A visit to the Orient Pearl Co Ltd pearl farm around Ravenshaw island.
Formerly known as "Myanmar Ocean Pearl Co Ltd" the "Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd" is a private company which is working at Ravenshaw island since 1993. Its owner, U Myint Lwin was first involved in fishing before to become one of the main pearl producer in Mergui. "Myanmar Orient Pearl Co Ltd" was presented to us as the second most important pearl farm in Mergui after Tasaki, a Japanese company and Myanmar Pearl Enterprises, the Burmese state owned company. In 1999 Kham Vannaxay visited already the operation with Ted Themelis. A report was published later by Ted Themelis. It was interesting to see that pearl farming in Mergui changed dramatically since that visit,
"The pearl and the man " A Burmese man from Mergui present proudly his Mergui pearl ring. Who said that pearls are just for women? Photo: V. Pardieu, 2007
This expedition to Mergui was a great experience for Christian Dunaigre and myself as we were dreaming to visit the Mergui archipelago pearl farms for many years. We were not disappointed. We have spend in Mergui some exceptional moments with wonderful people. We were able to literally dive in the world of cultured pearls and discover some of its fascinating secrets.
I would like to thanks particularly for his precious help Kham Vannaxay from Sofragem in Bangkok to have organized this expedition and have invited Christian and myself to come with him. Finally I would like to thanks U Myint Lwin to have received us in his farm. I would like also to thanks U Tin Nge to have been such a great guide in the archipelago. Thanks to you guys, an old dream became true.
Important Note: Vincent Pardieu is an employee of GIA (Gemological Institute of America) Laboratory Bangkok since Dec 2008. Any views expressed on this website - and in particular any views expressed by Vincent Pardieu - are the authors' opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GIA or GIA Laboratory Bangkok. GIA takes no responsibility and assumes no liability for any content on this website nor is GIA liable for any mistakes or omissions you may encounter. GIA is in particular not screening, editing or monitoring the content on this website and has no possibility to remove, screen or edit any content.