I was on the tenth tee box at the City Golf Club of Yangon, Myanmar. I brought a set of clubs with me that came to me free and found a $12 carrying case at thrift store. Not my clubs, but clubs nonetheless and at the right price.
A single player has no standing and my caddie had taken me to #10 tee because #1 was so crowded. Before we could get started a threesome marched up and got ready to strike off. Two were Burmese and one of them was, it seemed to me, Indian. Neither of the Burmese spoke English but they gestured that I should join them. I was a bit unsure, but that was indeed their intention. In very halting English the “Indian” (who turned out to be, in fact, Nepali) invited me to join them. Got it. We all struck off.
They were in carts, I was walking but the Nepali fellow, whose name was Rajesh decided to walk with me and it became clear his English was severely limited. So I asked him, “Hindi ati hai?” (Do you speak Hindi?”). That he did! And so for the rest of the round our conversation was in Hindi–a pleasant surprise to him. About the 14th hole (one does not want to be too forward) I asked him what he did. He handed me a card, “Glorious Gems and Jewellery Co., Ltd” on Mogol St. in the downtown area. He was a gem dealer. Interesting. It had been my intention to buy Judy a ruby, something Myanmar is world renown for and something she has long deserved for putting up with the likes of me yea these many years.
I know nothing about rubies, or any gems for that matter. I have long practiced sticking to what I know and do not buy stuff like gems. The last time I bought a gem was while in college in Seattle when Herb Rivkin, at Rivkin’s Jewelers where I worked one year, offered me a 1/3 carat diamond in a men’s white gold setting for something bordering on a sub-wholesale price. That was 1970. Judy wears that diamond now and it is on her wedding band. But by golly I was now in Myanmar and I going to get her a ruby.
On the 18th green, after we had putted out and shaken hands all the way around and I had thanked them for having me, I asked if I could call him in a couple of days to come have a look at what he had. No problem, he said.
So on Valentine’s day (fitting, I thought), I called Rajesh and took a taxi downtown. Taxis in Yangon on are some of the cheapest I have experienced anywhere in the world — $4 and a 20 minute ride later I arrived on Mogol Street. The largest gem bazaar in Asia, I am told, is right there, one block long on both sides of the street.
The area is nondescript, nothing flashy (no stores with bright lights with lots of brass and glass), the pavement uneven, and the sidewalk crowded with people–Chinese, Burmese in their lungis (wraparounds) and Indians. Quite a few Indians. Every fifty feet or so there was a small tea stall under a tree. The ambiance was relaxed and tranquil, with small clusters of men, and just men, sitting on low plastic stools talking quietly.
I found 50A and walked in, taking off my shoes at the entrance. There was Rajesh seated behind his desk in a narrow shop, with bare walls, merely 10 feet wide. His son, Bisnu was seated quietly behind him. They stood to greet me, as did an Indian from Bombay who was seated in front of the desk looking at a cluster of loose diamonds. The Indian said he was a buyer and a gem dealer and that his specialty was diamonds and that he made the trip to Myanmar several times a year to buy diamonds from Rajesh. These he was given on speculation and once sold (obviously at a profit) the previously agreed upon price would be remitted to Rajesh. Trust. The whole thing was based on trust. 100% trust. We are talking about no small amount of money here.
We chatted about this and that (by this time I was interspersing Hindi with English because I did not have the necessary vocabulary for what we were talking about and both Bisnu (who, I discovered, has a MA in finance from a University in the San Franciso area) and the diamond buyer from Bombay had excellent English. I was in no rush–I had nothing better to do. They were not in a rush. They were doing what they do. And about a half hour into it the Indian chap said he had to go and asked me what I was interested in. Rubies I said. A ruby for my wife.
Tea was ordered.
Rajesh brought out a packet of rubies–loose, folded in two layers of paper, the inner layer was wax paper–all rubies in the rough. The Indian from Bombay stayed another 15 minutes as Rajesh brought out several packets from the drawer to his right. First the rough, natural ones. Then the smallest and least desirable…and cheapest (cut, clarity, color, carat are the four “c’s” of gem stones). In the case of rubies the darker the color the more expensive. “Pigeon Blood”, a deep, rich, dark maroon was the rarest and most expensive of the lot, with quality and size sending the price into the stratosphere. Well, it was clear that anything remotely “pigeon blood” was out.
He sifted upwards through various lots of rubies, telling me at one point that actually these were old lots of rubies he had and that he did not really deal in rubies any more. He sifted through one packet, looked up at me and asked, “Ap ki bibi ke leeye, hai na?” (It is for your wife, right?”). I replied with a respectful yes, “Han, jee”. Pressing his finger tip firmly on one ruby he had separated out from the others he caused it to stick into the flesh on the end of his finger. And he lifted it to his scale and weighed it (did you know rubies weigh more than diamonds of the same size?). Slightly over 3 carats.
Rajesh, looked at me, looked at the ruby, and then pronounced what was clearly a no-haggle price (although typically a LOT of haggling goes on). “Theen sau.” Three hundred. I repeated it because I could not believe it, “Theen sau?” Incredible. Not cheap. REAL cheap. I carry my passport in a pouch that I hang around my neck and in such a way as to keep it under my left arm. I found this to be a very safe way to carry my passport and money. But it has a drawback, it is hard to get to. But I got it out and pulled out three crisp $100 bills.
The diamond dealer from Bombay had left. I thanked Rajesh for his time. Bisnu gave me the address of a place of business that would take a photo of the gem and give me a certificate of authenticity. He highly recommended I do it. I told him it was not necessary. He again encouraged me to do so.
We all stood up. They put on their sandals, I put on my shoes and we stepped on to the street. Up until this moment I thought all the business in this the largest gem market in Asia was inside small shops like this. It turned out I was wrong. We had hardly stepped onto the sidewalk when Rajesh was ushered into a circle of several Indians, all drinking tea. Another cup was ordered, for him. And he ordered another one, for me. And they scooted their little stools around and allowed me to join their circle.
Rajesh (in the middle, with Mr. Ray Bans on the right.
Another Nepali took out a Sapphire ring in a silver setting. He was wearing Ray Bans and had beetle nut stains all over his teeth. The chatting was in Nepali and I was taking all of this in. THIS is where the bulk of the trade took place. Right HERE, right out in the open. No shop. No guard. Under a tree with a cup of tea. Just then, behind me, walked a Burmese man carrying a half full gunny sack on his shoulder. Rajesh pointed it out. The gunny sack was totally full of local money, he estimated $100K worth. Again, no guard. It was totally safe walking down this street with that type of cash. Further here sat all these gem dealers, hundreds of them clustered in small circles, sitting on stools, drinking tea–with millions of dollars of gems in their pockets.
A small packet of Rubies and a jade necklace.
This Nepali had purchased that sapphire yesterday for $2K. Rajesh offered him $3K on the spot. Cash. Nope. He wanted $5K. Rajesh would not go up. Bisnu whispered to me that Mr. Ray Bans would get $5K, no problem. The guy was an expert on sapphires and even $5K was below wholesale. Next a Columbian emerald came out. $50K. It was passed around. I held it, looked at it, and was staggered at the amount of money that was involved in a “mere” stone.
I spent an hour with these men in this small cluster. They looked for all the world like a gaggle of men with entirely too much time on their hands, whiling away the hours. Although the ambiance was relaxed and tranquil, it was far from “idle chatter”. Deals were being done. Money was changing hands. Emeralds, sapphires, diamonds and rubies were being passed around. Fortunes were being made.
The two hours I spent on Mogol street–one hour with Rajesh and Bisnu inside their shop and one hour outside with their cronies–was one of the most unique I have spent in my entire life.
Bisnu and I traded emails. I thanked them for my most extraordinary time with them.
A golf ball. A ruby.
East is east and west is west and sometimes, just sometimes, the ‘twain does meet.
Steve Van Rooy
February 2014P.S. I did get it certified. And appraised. $1500 is what they said it was worth. Vah, vah, vah. And it is now on Judy’s finer.