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Journey to the stone - Ruby

Journey to the stone podcast with Don Kogen about Ruby


Exciting times, because in this episode of Journey to the Stone, I take you to one of my favorites, also one of the most important colored gems on record globally. A gem that has captured the hearts of royalty — it demands the highest price per carat of any colored stone in the history of the world, by auction — it is something that is traded on a daily basis, and demands prices that no other colored stone has ever seen before. Let’s talk about the legendary ruby.

Now, I think we should start with the gem that has broken the world record. Let’s start with the Sunrise Ruby. This particular ruby — coming out of the Mogok Stone Tract — surpassed over $1,000,000 a carat. It was the first time a colored gemstone had surpassed $1,000,000 a carat. Emeralds have reached a quarter of a million, Kashmir sapphires have reached a quarter of a million, D Flawless diamonds have reached a quarter of a million — but the Sunrise Ruby was the first time that we’d ever seen a gem surpass that 7 digit per carat mark. This was a phenomenon. Something that had never been seen before, which only shows the demand and the interest in the legendary pigeon’s blood red rubies of the world. If you want to own one of the rarest gems in the world, it is the unheated, fully certified, pigeon’s blood red rubies. That’s what demands the highest price per carat. It has always demanded the highest price per carat, and it also is one of the rarest geological phenomena in the world.

The Sunrise Ruby, coming out of the legendary Mogok Stone Tract — this is basically in Burma, it comes out of the Shan State — that Mogok Stone Tract has captured the hearts of Maharajas, royalty throughout the years. It’s been mining for hundreds of years, and it basically put pigeon’s blood red rubies on the map. And now, a 2.00 carat stone can set you back high-5 digits to 6 digits per carat, if you’re talking about the Mogok material. And if you can get any good quality crystallized Mogok ruby, it’s expensive. Mogok ruby is one of the most in-demand rubies of the world: it rivals the price of the most expensive diamonds; it surpasses anything in the world of color. There is nothing like it when you’re talking about value proposition — it’s extremely collectible.

Now let’s talk a little about the whole Mogok area. I grew up in Thailand from the age of 13. I used to sneak across the border, going into Mogok at the age of 15 years old. It was illegal to go into Burma at that period. I mean, literally I would not be alive today if I was caught. But I was young, I was stupid, and I was interested. I wanted to know where these stones came from. So I used to go under the radar, sneak into the Shan state, and travel down village to village in the Mogok Stone Tract. I used to sit there, and basically learn from the villagers and trade stones with them. And then I used to sneak across back into the Thai border. I would disappear for 3, 4, 5 weeks at a time. People thought I was dead. But it was what basically inspired me to become the gem hunter of who I am today, because after going into Mogok, the world was simple for me. When Africa opened up, it was less dangerous. When other countries opened up — I remember going through Sri Lanka, when they had the Tamil Rebels, et cetera — I wasn’t even fazed because Burma set the bar so high, and was so dangerous, that it was basically my education into the world of madness. Gem-hunting with no fear. That’s where it all began.

But in that process, I got to learn how these particular pigeon’s blood red rubies grow within the marble host rock. The highest fluorescence within the crystal structure — that differentiates them from what was the dominant ruby at the time. At the time — if you look back around 30-odd years ago — the prominent and dominant ruby in the marketplace was the Siam ruby, the Siamese ruby, or the Thai ruby that was predominantly mined in Bo Phloi or Nawong. These are the particular locations of mines within Thailand. It was what basically put Chanthaburi, Thailand on the map. Because the mines were mined within the Chanthaburi region. There was also a spillover of Cambodian ruby that used to basically come into the Thai market as well, also known as Thai ruby, but the Siamese ruby — that particular area dominated the ruby market. So if you were buying rubies in New York or London, they were most likely, at that period in the 80s and 90s, predominantly Siamese rubies.

Then these particular pockets dried up. The Burma ruby has always been a very limited mined ruby, and back in the day — it’s had a lot of political turmoil, and ups and downs and changes of governments, et cetera — so it’s always been tricky, the Burma ruby, access has always been limited, and it’s never been a large quantity of Burmese rubies being mined. Thai ruby, on the other hand, was the first time they brought in serious mechanized mining. The Thais brought in the machines, they mined out everything they could, and the mines depleted. And that is why today, in the current market, there is zero Siam ruby traded at all. There is none out there. There is none in circulation. There is no mining. There is nothing. Nothing. If you’re looking for a 3.00 or 4.00 carat Thai Siam, Siamese ruby, it is impossible to find, because there is nothing — unless it is on someone’s finger, or in a piece of jewelry somewhere, or in someone’s safe. So, Siamese rubies: a thing of the past.

Then, after the Siamese ruby basically depleted, Africa was the big thing. I remember being in Africa in early 2000 — late 1990s to early 2000 — and then we started finding rubies in Tanzania. That was a big thing. Tanzania — the first discovery was down in the Songea Region — now they produce predominantly color chain sapphire in Songea, but there were some red rubies that came out of the Songea region. But they tended to be very similar to the Siamese counterparts in the Thai area; they tended to have a more purple hue to them. They didn’t have the vivid red, like the material that comes out of Mogok, Burma. But that particular material had sparkle. It had sparkle. If you like sparkle, Tanzanian ruby popped. Songea was electric. It would pop, it would sparkle — the brilliance was unbelievable. And today, 99% — not even 99, I would say 100% — of all Songia ruby has been heated with beryllium. This is an additive they add while the heating process is going on. It’s a controversial discussion. Kat Florence doesn’t deal with any beryllium stones. But beryllium is added within the crucible when they’re heating the ruby at 1800 degrees, and it makes that stuff pop! You want to see a gem turn purple to neon red — add beryllium to it. Very controversial, some people accept it, some don’t, but that’s a whole different discussion point. I sell a lot of rough that comes out of Tanzania, to people who heat this within Thailand, and then sell it onto different markets in Turkey, the US. A lot of people use it, because there is no sparkle like it.

Then the discovery of Winza. Winza was actually quite remarkable. The Winza deposit in Tanzania was very similar to material you saw out of Burma, but not as crystallized as the Burmese material. It was very rare. Now, don’t get me wrong — every ruby mine has amazing quality. Every single one will have the finest quality ruby. It’s just the percentage of how much of it actually is present within that deposit. So Winza: very short-lived, not a lot of rubies coming out of the deposit, but it was nice to see that red coming into the marketplace, to try to make up for the shortfall of the Burmese ruby.

Now Burmese ruby: while this is happening in early 2000, it is exponentially increasing in price. You can see the auctions going for $200,000 a carat go up to $250,000 a carat, $300,000 a carat, $350,000, $400,000. You would think, with all the problems in Burma, and all the different restrictions — can’t import to the US, the trade embargoes — that the prices wouldn’t increase, but they kept going up. The Chinese used it as portable wealth. They were in the market, they were buying, it was crazy days. Here we go. This is where it all started changing.

Mid-2004 to 2005, I find myself in Mozambique, predominantly going after the Paraiba deposit. I was buying up everything I could. Mozambique Paraiba was world-changing. Nobody had ever seen it, nobody ever knew it, and I was there, filling up my pickup truck with it. I was buying everything I could. I went up to the Montepuez area of Mozambique, and what did I discover? I discovered ruby. Now this is before Gemfields was there. I was in Montepuez, in the northern part of Mozambique, plucking out these rubies. Now this material was different. This material had the pigeon’s blood red color. No orange overtone, like we saw in Winza; no purplish overtone like we saw in Songea; no Siamese purple color as a secondary — this stuff was red. It was raining red. Raining red. Hallelujah, just raining red. And I stayed there for a year and a half, and worked with the locals, and bought as much of this Montepuez ruby as I could get to sell it into the market in Thailand, and voilà: Montepuez ruby — Mozambique ruby — was on the map.

Ruby Ring

Now, I trade rough. I trade hundreds and hundreds of kilos of rough, that’s my primary business. And what you see in Kat Florence is predominantly the selected, cherry-picked pieces that I have collected for myself throughout the years of selling rough. So I’ll buy 100 kilos, keep 1 gram, you know? And that is what Kat Florence ends up with. And that’s why you see these top, rare, super stones at prices that are outright silly. So Montepuez is on the map, and Gemfields, who’s doing all the mining for the Zambian emerald in Africa, comes over to Mozambique and takes a position. So they have this joint venture with the government of Zambia, so they walk in, they make a joint venture with the government of Mozambique, and voilà: the Gemfields Ruby Mine is in action and in production. Then it’s tough for me to get value. Because I’m a value hunter. I like to get in before the mining operations, before the roads are paved — I want to get in there, I want to walk through the jungle, swim across the river, get to the mine when it’s just artisanal mining. I want to be the first one in, get the best quality, get the best pricing, and get out. And that’s predominantly what I do, whether it’s opal in Ethiopia, whether it’s Sonora Dendrite in Mexico — I go to locales that people don’t know exist. So Montepuez is now on the map, and it becomes the predominant supplier of ruby in the world market. Prices are still going up, because anything that is nice red demands huge prices.

Now, a fact that you need to understand about ruby. 99.9999% — basically almost all rubies in the world — are heated. Unheated, natural, the hand of Mother Nature rubies are extremely rare. And they demand huge price points. That’s why you’ll see ruby selling for 7 digits a carat. You’ll see them at auctions regularly — pigeon’s blood, you know, good crystallized ruby that is unheated — demanding 6 digits, 7 digits a carat, because it is rare. Usually ruby must be heated to improve the crystallization. Now, I trade rough. And the rough that I trade, most of it gets heated. But every once in a while, when I see a stone that is naturally crystallized with the top color, I keep it. And that is what I have done for my whole life. And then I ended up giving these to Kat Florence, and that’s the pieces you see. But for educational reasons, what you see at most of the jewelry stores in the world — these are heated rubies. That’s the way it is. Unheated is very, very uncommon. Unheated is predominantly sold in auctions or in the collector world to individuals who understand it, who want what nobody can find in the gems that are the hardest and most important stones in the world to replace. They’re very, very uncommon.

Now we have had deposits of ruby discovered in Kenya, predominantly cabochon quality. We also have rubies that were discovered in other locales throughout the world, but nothing that dominates the crystal grade. So if you’re looking for the most expensive, beautiful ruby in the world, I’m going to put them in order for you. You’ve got the Burmese ruby, because of the credibility it’s had on the global stage: it hit 7 digits per carat, in big sizes, if you got crystallization, and that’s not even perfectly clean material! That’s just nice color, good fluorescence, that type of stuff. I would rank probably the second-most important ruby out there — it’s the deposit that most people don’t talk about, because most of these rubies, unless you’re really working with the top Swiss labs, are identified as Burma anyway — are the Luc Yen Rubies. They also grow in the marble host rock. Luc Yen is in Vietnam, quite close to the locale of the Mogok region. High chromium concentration in the crystal structure, high fluorescence as well, identical to its counterpart in Mogok: very, very good quality. The prices are pretty much the same when you’re buying them in the rough form. They’re very expensive in Vietnam, and the quantity is so limited. There’s just not a lot out there.

Then I would rank probably the Mozambique ruby. The Mozambique ruby, pigeon’s blood-certified, is always going to demand big dollars. Now, I have some Mozambique rubies that I have gotten throughout the years, that I give that term of “Jedi” to if they resemble the most important spinels in the world. I’ll give them that criteria or that distinction of “Jedi”, because they must sparkle and blow your head off. They must pop like crazy. So whenever you see me say “Jedi ruby”, you can be sure this gem is explosive. It’s high fluorescence. It’s popping. It’s electric. The color is perfect, and it is one of the finest rubies that that mine has ever produced, period. Those are the stones I’m always trying to collect.

So I collect two distinct varieties: Jedi rubies and pigeon’s blood red rubies. Pigeon’s blood because it’s always been the go-to, it’s more of a vivid color, it’s more of a deep color. A lot of people like that, but I also like the Jedi pop. Things that look like Namibia spinel— things that glow in the moonlight, glow in the dark — if you can get rubies that glow in the dark, especially if they are unheated and natural, that makes them one of the rarest geological phenomena that Mother Nature has ever produced. So, that is your education for ruby for the day. I could go on for hours about ruby because this is one of my main trading stones. I have hunted ruby my whole life. It is also one of the most in-demand and loved gemstones out there.

Whether you go Jedi ruby, whether you go pigeon’s blood, or if you already own a ruby — take care of it, look after it, unheated reigns supreme. Always understand that. If you have a heated ruby, do not worry; heated rubies still hold value, they still are increasing in value. I sell a lot of rough that ends up being heated and is sold all over the world, in the main retailers of the world. So it’s by no means a faux pas type situation. It’s just if you want the best, if you want what nobody has, and if you want one of the rarest geological phenomena that Mother Nature ever makes — go unheated. If you can get a nice color, crystallized, gem quality ruby, that’s unheated, that is extremely rare.

And if you can get it above 1.00 carat, that is crazy, crazy rare — and above 2.00 carats gets like ten times rarer. Above 3.00 carats, there is not a lot in the world. Above 5.00 carats, you’re talking about a freak of nature. These are not stones that grow in size, especially in the natural form, without the presence of heat or any treatment whatsoever. So if you can get those, it’s a good place to invest, a good place to hold on to. Prices have soared consecutively and consistently for the last 30-odd years in my career. So if you like the best, stick with the unheated, stick with the bigger size, and stick with good crystallization. I hope you enjoyed my episode on ruby, I’ll reach out with a new gemstone coming soon.

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