TO HEAR RICHARD HUGHES tell it, the journey was like something straight out of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” One of the world’s leading modern-day gem hunters, he was hell-bent on reaching the fabled jade mines of upper Myanmar—a jungle redoubt so remote and closely guarded that few living Westerners have ever laid eyes on it.
Before he could get close, he had to spend months ahead of his trip convincing Myanmar’s secretive military, which controlled access to the country’s mines, to let him in. Then he had to navigate some of the most punishing, malaria-ridden terrain east of the Congo, capped by a grueling climb along a dirt road his handlers said would only take seven hours to ascend.
The trail quickly turned into a river of sludge under Myanmar’s brutal monsoons, trapping vehicles in mud to their doors until teams of elephants showed up to haul them out. Days passed by as Hughes and his companions fought their way through the muck. In ramshackle villages along the way, residents smoked opium and told wild tales of the mining world beyond the ridges above.
But none of it could have prepared Hughes for what he found when he reached his destination three days later: a Wild West boomtown unlike anything he had ever seen.
Stores were stocked with imported cognac and French perfume, while locals frittered away cash on roulette wheels, drugs and prostitutes.
Fortune hunters tried just about anything to find jade—including diving into rivers with tubes hooked up to bicycle pumps onshore so they could breathe underwater. When people found dirty brown rocks they thought might contain jade, they thwacked them with hammers to see what kind of sound they made: If they rang like a bell, that was a good sign. In the main mines, meanwhile, armies of men marched along tracks hauling baskets filled with earth—more dirt, and perhaps more jade, from the depths below.
To Hughes, it was like stepping into the age of the pharaohs. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is like building the pyramids,'” he recalls.
Hughes’s inaugural journey to the Hpakant jade mines took place more than a decade and a half ago. But to a surprisingly large degree, Myanmar’s famed gem mines have remained untamed, according to more recent visitors. The same, it turns out, could be said of the entire $10 billion “colored” jewels industry, the storied but murky business centered around 50 or so colored gemstones, such as jade, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, which have entranced the world’s wealthy since the days of the Mughal dynasty and Catherine the Great.
Unlike the global diamond business, which is largely controlled by big companies like De Beers and painstakingly tracked by investors and Wall Street bankers, the colored gems world is still dominated by small miners and adventurers who wander some of the globe’s most dangerous or underdeveloped places in search of treasure. The best stones tend to come from countries like Madagascar, Tajikistan, Colombia and Myanmar, where smuggling often is rampant, record-keeping is poor, and mine owners are sometimes reluctant to let outsiders visit for fear they might cut their own deals with the locals.
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