Himalayan Ruby Hunt

In February 2006, some unusual rubies began to appear in the gem market in Bangkok, Thailand. They were both attractive and natural — most showed no evidence of heat treatment — suggesting that there had been a new find somewhere in the world. If true, that would be big news: The trade has been more focused on ruby treatments the past few years than on the dwindling supply of good rubies. Tracking down the new source was a different matter.

Himalayan Ruby Hunt
Miners crouch at the entrance to the Nangimali ruby mine in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan — more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor below — to inspect their rough crystals. Photos by Vincent Pardieu.

Some of these stones showed up in the market in Yangon. Myanmar (formerly Burma), and some dealers claimed that the stones came from a new mine in Myanmar. But new discoveries in Myanmar tend to spark a gem rush, and this time there were no rumors of any new mining locality. A gemological examination of the rubies also showed that, while they were similar in some ways to Myanmar rubies, they also had characteristics that were very different. My conclusion: These rubies had obviously come from somewhere else. It seemed that dealers were calling these gems “Burma new mine origin” because the gems had some characteristics similar to Myanmar ruby, and the name “Burma” permitted them to offer the stones at a higher price.

After careful inquiry, my sources in the Bangkok market told me that the new stones were being brought in by a group of Tajik gem dealers from Peshawar, Pakistan. This information was interesting, as some of the characteristics of these stones correlated with a study of Tajik rubies by Christopher Smith. published in the British Journal of Gemmology in 1998.

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The arrival of these new rubies was a strong motivation for me to travel and explore this new area. I began planning a trip to the western end of the Himalayan mountain range, around the regional trading center in Peshawar, which is close to known ruby deposits in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.

Gemologist Guillaume Soubiraa prepares to descend into one of the trenches at the ruby mines in Jagdalek, Afghanistan. Photo by Vincent Pardieu.

Peshawar is a dusty, crowded city, located just at the entrance to the famous Khyber Pass. The pass leads through the Pashtun tribal areas to Kabul, Afghanistan. The market is full of Afghan goods, including gemstones, and many trucks take the road to Kabul every day.

The gem market is located in Peshawar’s Namak Mandi district. It has become a dynamic regional market, attracting gemstones and minerals from all over Central Asia. Thanks to a Pashtun friend, our first contact with gem traders in Namak Mandi came off easily.

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The market is small, just two narrow streets. Afghan men dressed in the traditional salwar kameez were quietly drinking tea, walking in the street, talking to each other, and trading. As soon as we sat down in our local contact’s small office, dealers started to visit us, wondering what we wanted to see. “Rubies, of course!”

As expected, rubies were plentiful in the market; pinkish to red stones from Jagdalek, Afghanistan, were the most common, and there were also parcels of very similar-looking stones said to come from a new deposit near Murgab, Tajikistan. I was pleased to see that these rubies were very similar to the mysterious new find we had seen in Bangkok. Dealers also had a few small rubies from the Kashmir deposits in Pakistan.

After a week in the market, it was time to visit the mines. Our first priority: Find the source of those Tajik rubies! We took the road to Kabul, and from there a plane to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where we met two American friends, Richard W. Hughes and Dana Schorr, for a 20-day trip to Tajikistan’s spinel and ruby mines.

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But visiting a mine in Tajikistan is not an easy matter. The mines are run by Gubjemast, a state-owned company close to the Tajik political police. The police are locally called the “KGB,” reminding us that Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union until its independence in 1991. It’s illegal for foreigners to buy gemstones in Tajikistan, and the police are suspicious of outsiders who want to go to the mines. It took several days of driving, and several more in discussions with the local government, to finally get approval from the governor of Badakhshan province to visit the Murgab ruby mines.

After a long drive, we reached Murgab, a small city located in a high-altitude swamp. Murgab is the main trading center of the eastern Pamir Mountains, and is famous for its hot springs. The word was that some dealers masquerade as tourists visiting the hot springs, conducting their gem deals in secret. People in Murgab were cautious at first, but things got better once we got the support of the local authorities for our visit.

The Snijnie mining camp is located 26 miles to the east of the city of Murgab. It is, to our current knowledge, the only officially sanctioned ruby mining camp in the Pamir Mountains. Less than 20 miners, with two excavators and explosives, work the deposit. Like the famous ruby mines in Mogok, Myanmar, it is a primary marble deposit. The rubies we saw coming from the mines were a match for the rubies we saw in Bangkok. However, it was difficult to believe, based on the production we saw, that all the rubies in Peshawar, Bangkok, and elsewhere were coming from that single hard-rock mine, with its two small trenches and its small cadre of miners.

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This mystery was possibly solved when I consulted the writings of a group of Russian geologists. The Russians originally discovered the deposit in the 1970s while searching for uranium and other strategic ore deposits for the former Soviet Union. Primary and secondary deposits of rubies were found over an area 132 miles long by 30 miles wide, stretching along the Chinese border. My guess was that the ruby was being mined in other places in that area of Tajikistan and possibly also on the other side of the border in the Xinjiang autonomous region. My theory was partly corroborated in August 2006 during a visit to the towns of Kashgar and Tashkurgan in Xinjiang. We met several local dealers selling small rubies in a white matrix said to be from this area.

AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN

Leaving Tajikistan behind, our next visit was to the ruby deposit in Jagdalek, Afghanistan.

Jagdalek is the traditional Afghan ruby source. Valentine Ball, an Irishman who was the head of the Geological Survey of India, wrote the first description of the deposit in 1881, and the mines probably existed much earlier. The geology of the region was similar to Murgab, but the scale of mining was very different. The miners were digging long trenches — much deeper than we saw in Tajikistan — in the vertical layers of marble to get at the rubies. The altitude was low enough that it avoided the extreme weather conditions of the high mountains, so the mines could be worked all year round.

A miner at Nangimali presents the author with a ruby crystal from the mines.

For the previous two years, the Afghan government had closed the area. The reason, we were told, was conflicting claims and unpaid mining taxes. A police camp was visible in the middle of the area, but we saw some signs of small-scale illegal mining. This mining was probably occurring at night, using very simple tools in the deep, water-flooded trenches.

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We returned to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, via the Khyber Pass, and from there back again to Peshawar. There, with the help of the Geological Survey of Pakistan, we took the road to the Neelam Valley and Muzaffarabad in the far north of Pakistan — in the disputed region of Azad Kashmir — to reach the Nangimali ruby deposit.

The trip was difficult. In 2005, a terrible earthquake destroyed Muzaffarabad, including the headquarters of the Azad Kashmir Mineral Industrial Development Corporation (AKMIDC), which was working the mines at Nangimali at the time of our visit.

Utili Domel, the mining village near the Nangimali ruby mine in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.

The area was still suffering the aftermath of the earthquake, with heavy monsoon rains causing many landslides. To reach Nangimali, we had to abandon our car and travel by foot, skirting the numerous areas where the road was blocked by a landslide, then search out and hire another vehicle to reach the next landslide block. It took two days of this sort of travel to reach the mining area, which is located near a village called Utili Domel.

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The greatest production in this area came from the Chitaka mine, a new area just a few hundred yards outside the village. In the 25 days preceding our arrival, this mine produced 19 kilograms of rough, although most of the material was milky and not facet quality. The best-quality rubies came from the “Lower” Khora mine — an odd name for a mine located 3,851 meters (12,631 feet) above sea level — but sadly, the rough crystals were very small, and production was very limited.

Ruby mining throughout the areas we visited seems very promising. This is good, because decreasing production in Myanmar has made fine, unheated rubies rarer than ever. However, there are some significant challenges. For example, the altitude and terrain make the mines difficult to access, and because of the variable weather, most mines operate only during the short summer season.

An excavator working in a trench at the Snijnie ruby mine in Tajikistan. Photos by Vincent Pardieu.

The lack of political stability in the area is another issue. Here, the Peshawar market is a help for foreign gem buyers: People there were friendly, and business could be done. This is very different from our experience in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, where gems cannot be purchased legally from the locals. We ended our journey with the hope that more people would become aware of the beauty, potential, and hospitality of this region.

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Vincent Pardieu would like to thank the miners and dealers in the areas they visited for their kindness, help, and time; he would also like to thank the Gübelin Gem Lab in Lucerne, Switzerland, and the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok for their support of this trip.

by Vincent Pardieu with Richard W. Wise

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