Burmese Jade • The Inscrutable Gem • Lotus Gemology

by Richard W. Hughes, Olivier Galibert, George Bosshart, Fred Ward, Thet Oo, Mark Smith, Tay Thye Sun & George Harlow
Burmese Jade  |  The Inscrutable Gem

Myanmar's jadeite mines occupy a privileged place, representing the planet's principal source of fine jadeite jade. This article covers the deposits themselves, along with the cutting, grading and trading of jadeite.

If jade is discarded and pearls destroyed, petty thieves will disappear, there being no valuables left to steal. From a dictionary published during the reign of
Emperor K'ang Hsi (1662–1722 AD) , as quoted by Gump, 1962

The track leads down to a small encampment. As the sun's first glow appears, its aura illuminates a Yunnan trader preparing for the day ahead. With a watchmaker's care, all the possessions in his earthly world are gathered together and placed into burlap sacks. These are then strapped onto a mule's saddle, a stone from the nearby river helping to balance the load.

He sets off in the misty light just before dawn, slowly working his way alongside a small river snaking through the valley bottom. The surrounding jungle pushes in everywhere, clothing all in a sticky green glow. Soon, the only noise is that of the man whistling softly, urging the animal on. Clip, clop, hoof against stone, one foot in front of the other, each step a mark of patience – down the track, into the sunlight… into history… into immortality… for the rock on the mule's back is no ordinary stone. Burma's jade mines are on the brink of discovery.

Harold & Erica Van Pelt, jade, Burma jade, Hpakan, jadeite mining, nephrite, maw-sit-sit, Burmese jade

Figure 1. "Windows" cut into this otherwise undistinguished boulder from the Burma Jade Tract reveal the presence of a rich green in the jadeite beneath the skin. Boulders such as this are the source of the fine green, orange-red, and lavender cabochons that are much sought-after in China and elsewhere. The bowl is approximately 6 cm wide x 5 cm high. The cabochons measure approximately 15 x 19 mm (green), 13 x 18 mm (orange-red), and 10 x 14 mm (lavender). Courtesy of Bill Larson and Pala International; photo © Harold & Erica Van Pelt.

Some 700 years later, in the same remote corner of the planet, the scene has changed dramatically. The green cloak of jungle has been stripped away, replaced by naked earth. Across it crawl thousands of human ants, prying boulders loose from the compact brown soil. Yesteryear's idyll is today broken by the sound of jack hammers, their a rat-a-tat beat punctuated by the cymbal crash of pick and shovel. In the background a choir of coolies stands at attention, baskets perched, ready to carry debris out of this earthen tomb. As a boulder is turned over, it is quickly examined, then discarded, along with the mounds of dirt that surround it. So the process is repeated. Over and over, again and again, hour after hour, day after day. The operation is a study in patience. Patience, patience – those who hurry lose, those who hurry make mistakes, those who hurry miss the prize – those who hurry don't go to heaven.

The construction of Egypt's Great Pyramids was a similar study in patience, but with one important difference. That in Upper Burma consists of deconstruction, the dismantling of entire mountains, step by step, bit by bit, stone by stone, one pebble at a time. All involved share a single-minded devotion to the task. Patience, patience – those who hurry lose, they miss something, they don't go to heaven. Those who hurry don't find jade.

Welcome to Jade Land

Few localities in the world of gems are as singular as the jadeite mines of Hpakan, Upper Burma (now Myanmar*). These storied deposits and the green stone that emanates from them have long been shrouded in mystery.

For starters, there is sheer geography. Burma's Kyaukseinmyo (literally "Jade Land") is located about 420 aerial km north of Mandalay, amidst some of the most inaccessible jungle on the planet. Due to monsoon rains, they are essentially cut off for several months out of the year (see box C). Now factor in a low-boil insurgency that has entangled the region for decades. But most important, this area is the primary source of a precious stone that sends nearly a quarter of the globe's population into spasms of ecstasy. More Merlin than mineral, jade is a gem which some have referred to as an "enigma" (Hobbs, 1982).

But of equal importance to the mystery is that jade connoisseurship is almost strictly a Chinese phenomenon. People of the Orient have developed jade appreciation to a degree found nowhere else in the world, but this knowledge is largely locked away in non-Roman-alphabet texts that are inaccessible to most Westerners, adding further to jadeite's inscrutable reputation. The mines of Burma are the primary working deposits for the most prized gem in the Far East (Figure 1), a stone exceeded in price only by diamond.

This article will draw back the curtain on this enigmatic gem, revealing the manner in which Burmese jadeite is mined, traded, graded, cut, treated, and faked. Since the major gemological features of jade have already been extensively covered in the literature (Hobbs, 1982; Fritsch et al., 1992; Wang, 1994), emphasis here will be on lesser-known aspects. An understanding of jadeite is not limited to the technical or exacting, but it also requires a feeling for the cultural, textural, and ephemeral qualities that make the study of jade unlike any other in the world of gemstones.

Jade has a rich history in the Orient, especially China (Box A). Historically, the term jade was applied to any of a number of ornamental materials that could be carved, but most importantly amphibole jade, or nephrite. The rich green material subsequently found in Burma proved to be composed primarily of a different mineral (a pyroxene) and was named jadeite (see Box B). In this article, jade encompasses both jadeite and nephrite in those instances where the general carving material is being referenced, but jadeite or jadeite jade will be used to refer to the rock that is predominantly jadeite, where appropriate.

Although jadeite deposits are found throughout the world (Guatemala, Japan, Russia, and California), Burma remains the primary source of top-grade material. The Hpakan jadeite region (Figure 2) is one of the wildest, least-developed areas of the country. Until the authors' first trip, in 1996, no foreign gemologists had visited the mines since Edward Gübelin in 1963 (Gübelin, 1964–65, 1965a and b). One European known to have traveled in the general area was Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, who in 1985–86 made an epic journey through rebel-held areas of northern Burma, including the region surrounding Hpakan (see, e.g., Lintner, 1996). But he was unable to visit the mines themselves.

On February 24, 1994, a formal cease-fire was signed between the Burmese government and the main rebel group, the Kachin Independence Army (Lintner, 1996). In June 1996, RWH, OG, MS, and TO made a brief trip to Hpakan (Hughes and Galibert, et al., 1996–97). To give some idea of the sensitivity of this area, months were needed to obtain permission, with final approval coming from the second-highest-ranking general in the ruling SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Committee) military junta. RWH again visited the mines in March 1997, this time accompanied by FW and a German film crew led by Thailand-based journalist Georg Peter Müller (Hughes and Ward, 1997). This trip included a visit to Tawmaw. In November 1997, GB and TO paid a further visit to the Hpakan area, including a trip to Kansi and Maw Sit. Most recently, in January and February 2000, GEH visited the Nansibon jadeite deposits in the historic Hkamti area, which are located approximately 60 km northwest of Hpakan.

Box A: Jade – Heaven's Stone

More than 2,500 years ago, Gautama Buddha recognized that much of life involves pain and suffering. Consequently, few of us here on Earth have been provided with a glimpse of heaven. Instead, we mostly dwell in hell. But for the Chinese, there is a terrestrial bridge between heaven and hell – jade.

While gems such as diamond entered Chinese culture relatively recently, the history of jade (at the time, nephrite or another translucent material used for carving) stretches back thousands of years. In ancient China, nephrite jade was used for tools, weapons, and ornaments (Hansford, 1950). Jade's antiquity contributes an aura of eternity to this gem. Confucius praised jade as a symbol of righteousness and knowledge.

Yu, the Chinese word for jade, is one of the oldest in the Chinese language; its pictograph is said to have originated in 2950 BC, when the transition from knotted cords to written signs supposedly occurred. The pictograph represents three pieces of jade, pierced and threaded with a string; the dot was added to distinguish it from the pictograph for "ruler" (Goette, n.d.).

To the Chinese, jade was traditionally defined by its "virtues," namely a compact, fine texture, tremendous toughness and high hardness, smooth and glossy luster, along with high translucency and the ability to take a high polish (Wang, 1994). But they also ascribe mystical powers to the stone. Particularly popular is the belief that jade can predict the stages of one's life: If a jade ornament appears more brilliant and transparent, it suggests that there is good fortune ahead; if it becomes dull, bad luck is inevitable.

Jadeite (Figure A-1) is a relatively recent entry to the jade family. While some traditionalists feel that it lacks the rich history of nephrite, nevertheless the "emerald" green color of Imperial jadeite is the standard by which all jades – including nephrite – are judged by most Chinese enthusiasts today.


Jadeite bangles
Figure A-1. Although nephrite jade is China's original "Stone of Heaven," fine jadeite, as in this matched pair of semi-transparent bangles (53.4 mm in interior diameter, 9.8 mm thick), is the most sought-after of jades in the Chinese community today. Photo courtesy of and © Christie's Hong Kong and Tino Hammid.


The entire pre-1950s occidental history of Burma's jade mines is covered in Hughes (1999). With the exception of a brief mention in Griffith (1847), virtually the only account in English of the early history of jadeite in then-Burma is that of a Mr. Warry of the Chinese Consular Service. Hertz's Burma Gazetteer: Myitkyina District (1912) quotes at length from his 1888 report, and the historical sections of virtually all other accounts (see, e.g., Chhibber, 1934b; Keller, 1990) are based on Warry. The following also is based on Warry's report, as quoted by Hertz (1912).

Until at least the 13th century, "jade" in China was generally nephrite, a tough, white-to-green amphibole rock that was a favorite of stone carvers. The most important source was south of Hotan (Khotan) in the Kunlun mountains of western China; here, nephrite was recovered from both the White Jade and Black Jade rivers (Gump, 1962). Sometime in the 13th century, according to local lore as reported by Warry (Hertz, 1912), a Yunnan trader traveling through what is now northern Burma picked up a boulder to balance the load on his mule. When it was broken open, the brown-skinned rock revealed a vivid, "emerald" green material with the toughness of nephrite. The Chinese were captivated by this stone.

Also according to Warry, the Yunnan government sent expeditions to find the source of this unusual material in the 13th and 14th centuries, but they were unsuccessful. Although occasional small pieces of green jadeite would appear in China over the next 500 years, their origin remained a mystery until the late 18th century.

Enter the Dragon

In 1784, Emperor Qianlong (who reigned from 1736 to 1796) extended China's jurisdiction into northern Burma, where Chinese adventurers soon discovered the source of the green stone. From the late 18th century on, considerable amounts of jadeite were transported to Beijing and the workshops of China's foremost jade carvers. Emperor Qianlong preferred the rich hues of this "new" jade (jadeite), and soon the finest semi-transparent rich green fei-ts'ui ("kingfisher") material came to be known as "Imperial jade" (Hertz, 1912).

A well-established route for jadeite from Burma to China existed by 1798. Although political and other circumstances forced several alterations in the original route, the "jade road" – from Hpakan –operated until World War II.

The Rise of Hong Kong as a Trading Center

With the arrival of a communist regime in China following the Second World War, materialistic symbols such as jade fell out of favor. For the most part, the jadeite trade moved to Hong Kong, where carvers emigrated from Beijing and Shanghai.

In the 1950s, jadeite dealers went directly to Hong Kong, or had their stones relayed for sale there via Yunnanese and Cantonese colleagues. Jadeite auctions were organized in hotels such as the four-story Tai Tung Hotel (Benjamin S. Y. So, pers. comm., 1997). Starting in 1967, auctions were organized by the Hong Kong Jewellery and Jade Manufacturers Association (formerly Hong Kong Jade and Stone Manufacturers Association).

With the introduction of free-market reforms in China in the early 1980s, the markets and workshops of China again sought fine jade. Once more, the famous jade road was opened.

Developments in Burma

Like China, Burma also was torn by political turmoil following World War II. In 1962, the Ne Win-led military junta seized power, plunging the country into isolation. The period 1963–64 saw the jadeite mines (along with most other mines, including those of the Mogok Stone Tract) placed off-limits to foreigners. By 1969, when the government banned private exploration and mining of gems, the isolation was complete (Mining Journal Annual Review, 1970).

After 1962, the only official sales of jadeite in then-Burma were at the annual gem emporiums held in the capital city of Rangoon (now Yangon). But most production reached the outside world via the black market. Lower grades tended to move directly into Yunnan, while top material was brought overland to the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, where Hong Kong buyers assembled (Benjamin S. Y. So, pers. comm., 1997).

Box B: Piecing Together the Nomenclature Puzzle: What Is Jadeite Jade?

In 1863, French mineralogist Alexis Damour analyzed bright green jades from then-Burma. When he found these samples to be different from what was called Chinese jade (usually amphibole jade, or nephrite), he named the mineral jadeite (Damour, 1863). Although, as noted in the text, Chinese enthusiasts use jade for many ornamental materials that are suitable for carving, gemologists typically apply the term jade to either nephrite (an amphibole rock) or jadeite (a pyroxene rock). In the following discussion, we also distinguish jadeite jade (the rock) from jadeite (the mineral with nominal formula NaAlSi2O6).

Nephrite carvings

Figure B-1. Nephrite jade, which lies in the actinolite-tremolite series, is an aggregate of densely packed amphibole fibers. It usually has a distinctive greasy surface luster, as shown by these Chinese nephrite carvings. The larger carving measures 5.7 cm in diameter; photo by Maha Tannous.

Nephrite jade (Figure B-1) is an aggregate of micron-wide amphibole fibers that are densely packed in a felt-like texture. The composition lies within the actinolite–tremolite series (Ca2(Mg:Fe2+)5Si8O22(OH)2). Nephrite is supremely tough among all rocks, suitable for carving into intricate shapes while retaining its integrity.

Jadeite jade (Figure B-2) is a compact rock that generally has a more granular texture than nephrite. It consists of interlocking prismatic to "feathery" pyroxene crystals that can range in length from about 10 microns to over a centimeter, with a grain size that may vary greatly within a small area. Rarely, jadeite jade has a fibrous texture, but such jadeite will still be coarser than nephrite.

Jadeite (the mineral) is allochromatic; that is, it is transparent and colorless when pure. But as jade, it generally appears white due to light scattering from fractures, openings on grain boundaries, and tiny aqueous fluid inclusions. However, even white jadeite jade is commonly polymineralic, in that it is intergrown with minor albite and analcime, which introduce additional internal light scattering from the changes in refractive index across grain boundaries. A few jadeite jade colors are caused by mineral staining on grain boundaries:

  • hydrous iron oxides for red- to orange-brown,
  • an iron compound (iron-rich clay?) for some dark green streaks
  • graphite for some gray-to-black jadeite jades

However, most colors of jadeite are due to substitutions of transition metal ions for the fundamental Al3+ and minor Mg2+ (from diopside content) in jadeitic pyroxene. "Imperial" green, the most highly valued jade color (which is not duplicated in nephrite), is produced by Cr3+; only a very small percentage of this minor element is required to induce the vivid color. "Grassy" greens are the result of either Fe2+ or Fe3+ as the essential chromophore, although mixed Fe2+ and Fe3+ produces blue-green, bluish black, and blue-black jadeite; the darkest colors form in "jadeites" that have a few weight percent total iron oxide and are closer to half-jadeite/half-augite or the pyroxene called omphacite (Harlow and Sorensen, in press). Lavender jadeite is attributed to Fe2+—O—Fe3+ intervalence charge transfer in nearly pure jadeite (Rossman, 1974; Ponahlo, 1999). The color of aggregates of jadeite and sodic amphiboles has been termed "leek" green (in contrast to the "spinach" green of nephrite).

Jadeite beads

Figure B-2. Jadeite jade typically contains at least 90% jadeitic pyroxene in a rock that is typically more granular than nephrite. Note the vitreous surface luster of these translucent jadeite beads, which range from 9 to 10.5 mm in diameter. Photo courtesy of and © Christie's Hong Kong and Tino Hammid.

Jadeitic pyroxene in jade typically is not pure: It contains varying percentages of the pyroxenes diopside (CaMgSi2O6) and/or kosmochlor (NaCrSi2O6) – as well as the iron-rich pyroxenes hedenbergite (CaFe2+Si2O6) and aegirine (NaFe3+Si2O6) – in solid-solution mixtures with jadeite. Nearly pure kosmochlor (formerly called ureyite; first detected in meteorites) also may be present in some dark green jades. Petrologically, jadeitic pyroxene generally constitutes over 90%–95% of the rock. The other minerals in jadeite jade from Burma are sodic amphibole (compositions vary between eckermannite, glaucophane, richterite, and edenite), albite, analcime, tremolite, (ilmeno-) rutile, clinochlore, banalsite, and chromite (see, e.g., Harlow and Olds, 1987; Htein and Naing, 1994 and 1995).

It is not uncommon for some jadeite to be partly replaced by fibrous tremolite or actinolite (Tröger, 1967; Ou Yang, 1993) in the course of late-stage metasomatism. These polymineralic jades are polychromatic, usually white with gray-green to blackish green specks or streaks. Rarely, they appear green with fairly even color distribution. The designation of mixtures of jadeite and amphibole as "szechenyite" has been discredited (Deer et al., 1963).

Maw-sit-sit, mentioned as hmaw sit sit by Chhibber (1934b) and first described by Gübelin (1965a–c), is an ornamental rock that is a mottled, highly variegated intergrowth of white albite, yellowish white Mg-chlorite (clinochlore), green-black kosmochlor, chromian jadeite, and green eckermannitic amphibole (Figure B-3). The latter three minerals are commonly associated with corroded black chromite [(Fe:Mg)Cr2O4] crystals, from which the chromophoric Cr3+ ion is derived (Harlow, unpublished data; Hänni and Meyer, 1997; Harlow and Olds, 1987; Mével and Kiénast, 1986). The interstitial material (colorless, yellow, or white) within the remaining tiny crevices and cavities consists of serpentine or zeolite (thomsonite?). Maw-sit-sit is a "cousin" of jade, but because some samples contain compact centimeter-sized regions of chromian jadeite, a clear distinction from jadeite jade can be difficult.

Maw sit sit

Figure B-3. A "cousin" to jade, maw-sit-sit is an attractive ornamental stone that is an intergrowth mainly of albite, clinochlore, kosmochlor, chromian jadeite, and eckermannitic amphibole. These two maw-sit-sit cabochons weigh 9.87 ct (oval) and 8.48 ct. Courtesy of Pala International; photo © Harold & Erica Van Pelt.

Chloromelanite has been used to describe a dark green to black variety of jadeite (Tröger, 1967; Hobbs, 1982); mineralogically, it is a solid solution of roughly equal amounts of jadeite, diopside, and aegirine (Jackson, 1997). The term is used rather loosely by traders, who typically apply it to any dark green to black jade-like material. We discourage use of the term chloromelanite because the traditional trade usage conflicts with modern knowledge of its composition. Indeed, the name has already been discredited mineralogically, in favor of referring to the particular pyroxenes present (omphacite or aegirine-augite; Morimoto et al., 1988).

From a gemological standpoint, what does all this mean? Jadeite jade is essentially a rock with a variable composition. Although some have suggested a classification scheme for jadeite based on variations in composition or structure (Ou Yang, 1993; Wang, 1994), this is impractical for gemology because of the sophisticated equipment that would be needed to distinguish the various categories.

Location and Access

Kyaukseinmyo (literally "Jade Land") is located in north-central Burma (again, see Figure 2). The major jadeite mines are roughly enclosed east and west by the Uru (Uyu) and Chindwin rivers, between the 25th and 26th parallels of latitude, within Kachin State. (Because Burmese names are often transliterated into the Roman alphabet in different ways, the authors have included common alternative spellings in parentheses. The first spellings given throughout the text are generally those of Chhibber, 1934b.) According to current information, the northernmost mines are near Kansi (Gin Si), while the southernmost are near Haungpa (Haung Par). The westernmost mine near Lai Sai (west of Tawmaw) is situated outside the central Jade Tract.

Jade mines map

Figure 2. Hpakan is the center of the jadeite mining district (or central Jade Tract) in north-central Burma. There are two main routes into the Hpakan region, one from Mogaung and the other from Hopin. Adapted by R.W. Hughes and G. Bosshart from Hind Co. Map (1945). Click on the map for a larger image.

While Mogaung was formerly an important jadeite trading center, this is no longer the case. The present center of the mining district is Hpakan (Hpakant, Phakan, Phakant), a small town about 16 km by road southeast of Tawmaw that lies along the Uru River. Tawmaw, the village adjacent to the most famous primary jadeite outcrop, lies some 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Mogaung. Other important towns in the area, also along the Uru River, include Lonkin (Lon Hkin) and Sate Mu (Seikmo, a.k.a. Sine Naung). The important mining town of Hwehka (Hweka) is located some 20 km due south of Hpakan, along the Hwe River (hka means river). Jadeite is also mined at Makapin (Makabin), just east of Hwehka. With the exception of Hwehka and Makapin, no jadeite mining takes place east of the Uru River.

Two major dirt roads lead into the mining district, one from Mogaung and the other (the more mountainous route) from Hopin (again, see Figure 2). The authors traveled both routes – via modified trucks, cars, motorbikes, ponies, elephants, and on foot.

The area is a highly dissected upland, consisting of ranges of hills that form the Chindwin-Irrawaddy watershed (Chhibber, 1934b). Loimye Bum, an extinct volcano north of Kansi and the highest peak in the area, is 1,562 m above sea level. Tawmaw is 840 m, and Hpakan is 350 m, above sea level. The hills are covered with dense jungle. This is the area through which the Stillwell (Ledo) Road (Eldridge, 1946) was built, which was the scene of fierce fighting during World War II.

elephants pulling

Figure 3. Both routes into Hpakan are virtually impassable during the rainy season. They require travel through dense jungle, in dirt that rapidly turns to mud. On this June 1996 trip, even the power of two elephants could not free this vehicle. Photo © Richard W. Hughes. Click on the image for a larger version.

So brutal is the climate and so poor are the roads that travel is extremely difficult during the May–October monsoon season. Indeed, the November–April dry season is the only time one can be sure of reaching the mines. The authors' first trip, in early June 1996, took three days of struggling through mud to travel the approximately 56 km from Hopin to Hpakan, with a mere 8 km traveled on the second day. The return trip on the "good" road to Mogaung took more than 15 hours. At times during the rainy season, some areas are accessible only by foot, donkey, or elephant (Figure 3). But the dry season has its challenges, too. Whereas by November the roads again become accessible by motor vehicle (eight hours for the Mogaung–Hpakan trip), the brown mud is transformed into dust clouds that cloak entire valleys.

Box C: Monsoon madness: Reaching Jade Land in the wet season

CAUTION? HE MISSED the train in Mandalay. So for the monsoon trip between Hopin and Hpakan we are saddled with a beetle-nut fueled speed freak who is obviously being paid by Toyota to determine the amount of side torque a wheel can take before shearing from its axle.

As a sop to safety, our vehicle does have one of those fancy doo-hickey gauges on the dash, the kind that tells you when you are leaning, and when you are leaning too much. Useless, as we soon discover, since every time we get several degrees beyond the scale, we still remain upright.

Nyaungbin is our first glimpse of things to come. The small, L-shaped town is a staging point on the Hopin-Hpakan road, where vehicles gear up for the push into Jade Land. Our driver begins to strap on chains. Interesting. Next to us, another vehicle is removing them. What makes it notable is that it is a motorcycle. The mud-spattered rider tells us it took ten hours to come down from Hpakan and he only fell five times. Yes, this is looking interesting, indeed.

Outside Nyaungbin, the road changes, twisting and turning like a long brown snake, while the forest creeps ever closer. Everywhere there is jungle, green, ubiquitous green. This is obviously the road less traveled, but it's clear that when Robert Frost penned his poem about being better for the experience, he wasn't referring to this particular lane.
Cresting the next hill, a giant mud hole awaits, with a stuck truck right in our path. Here we encounter our first elephants, a common sight in the days ahead. All along the road, the giant beasts tug stranded vehicles from the mud, at a cost of 1,500 kyat ($12) per pull. But their services are not yet needed – our driver is able to squeeze by.

captain's shoes

Figure C-1. On the road to Hpakan. Our guide's second pair of shoes. Photo © Olivier Galibert.

The bottom of the following slope reveals a scene straight out of Dante's Mudferno. A ten-wheeled truck lies like a beached whale, submerged up to its windows in the slimy goo and it looks as if only the onset of the dry season, six months ahead, will liberate it from its brown tomb. While elephants make ready to free the vehicle, three vendors sit on the sidelines selling refreshments. The implication is clear – "You're gonna be here a while."

First up is a single elephant, whose chain is strapped around the truck's bumper. When everything is secure, the signal is given. Whack! The rider gives the elephant a sharp smack on the head with the back of his machete and all hell breaks loose. Trumpeting roars rock the forest's stillness as the great pachyderm strains to tug the truck free. Again and again it pulls, yanking, screaming, while the truck's engine shrieks and moans. Black clouds of diesel cloak the participants as both engine and elephant whine in agony. All to no avail; the truck has sunk deeper still.

Observing the proceedings, our driver asks if driving a truck is like this in America. We reply in the negative. Driving a truck is like this only in this valley. And we expect, some 200 millennia later, an anthropologist will dig up the fossilized remains of just such a truck and declare it to be the missing link between savage and civilization. We just hope our skeletons are not in it.

A second elephant is now brought to the fore and chained to the stranded vehicle beside the first. Again, machetes flash and the jungle seethes with the sounds of the straining beasts. Ever so slowly, as the truck rocks and whines, red tears trickle down the brow of one elephant – blood from the beating it is taking. But again, the truck refuses to budge.

Refusing to admit defeat, our driver grasps the nettle directly. Gunning his engine, he makes a desperate dive into the hole, trying to slip past the truck. But it is not to be. Now two vehicles are hopelessly mired in the muck. As the sun slowly sets on this forlorn corner of the globe, its fading light carries with it our last hopes and, in its place, a grim realization descends – no cold beer, no Hpakan tonight, no little Hong Kong. We now understand – we are gonna be here a while.


The population of Burma's Kachin State consists mainly of Shan, who dominate the major towns and valleys, and Kachin, who traditionally inhabit the hills (Hertz, 1912). The jade mines themselves feature a mixture of different peoples from around the country, lured by the promise of riches. During our visits to the mines, we met Kachin, Shan, Chinese, Chin, Wa, Rakhine, Nepalese, and Panthay. Today, however, immigrants from China increasingly dominate the towns and trade of northern Burma.

Hpakan today – "Little Hong Kong"

Over the past few years, the Burmese government has liberalized regulations concerning the gemstone sector, including the jade trade. For the first time in several decades, Burmese citizens are allowed to trade in gems, and even to sell to foreigners ("Myanmar Gemstone Law," September 29, 1995). Nevertheless, conducting business in Burma continues to be difficult, especially for noncitizens.

Since the 1994 peace agreement between the Kachin rebel groups and the government, thousands of people from across Burma have flocked to the Hpakan area to look for jade. Like the gold rush towns of America's Old West, Hpakan and neighboring Sate Mu (Sine Naung) have a transient air. None of the many people we met had been at the mines for more than a decade, and most had been there less than a year. Likewise, none of the government or military officials encountered in 1996 was there nine months later.

Still, wealth lurks just below the surface, with satellite dishes sitting atop tin-roofed huts. Indeed, the locals refer to Hpakan as "little Hong Kong," because it is said that one can get anything there, including fine cognac, expensive watches, dancing girls, and heroin. It should be noted, too, that the area has a very high incidence of AIDS.

Ka Htan West mine

Figure 4. At the Ka Htan West mine, located between Lonkin and Tawmaw, large peridotite boulders can be seen at the base of this 15-m-high wall of Uru Boulder Conglomerate. Photo © George Bosshart.

Geology of the Hpakan/Tawmaw Area

The first Western geologist to visit the mines was Fritz Noetling, who published his report in 1893. A.W.G. Bleeck followed with reports in 1907 and 1908. However, the most detailed account of the geology of the jadeite deposits is that of Harbans Lal Chhibber (1934a and b), who spent two years doing field work in the area, commencing in 1928. While substantial work has since been done by Burmese geologists, little of this is available to Western scientists. Thus, Chhibber's reports remain the classic references on the subject. All those who have come after him, including Soe Win (1968), based their descriptions on Chhibber's publications.

Mining at Tawmaw

Figure 5. In some areas at Tawmaw, miners must dig deep shafts through the overburden to reach the jadeite dikes. Dirt and gravel are removed by a rudimentary winch-and-bucket system. Photo © 2000 Fred Ward.

The jadeite region, or Jade Tract, is situated in the low-altitude plateau – also referred to as the "26°N (latitude) high" (Bender, 1983) – formed by the Uru anticline (east of the Hkamti syncline), where basement rocks are exposed through the sediments of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy basins. The Jade Tract is characterized by bodies of serpentinized peridotite (between Late Cretaceous and Eocene age) in a broken outcropping from northernmost Maw Sit, through the Tawmaw area, to Makapin, Mohnyin (80 km south of Makapin), and Mawlu (35 km farther south). The serpentinites are surrounded by crystalline schists and plutonic rocks such as granites and monzonites (Bender, 1983), which were generated by subduction of the Indian plate under the Asian continent. In contrast, the peridotite was derived from either the base of the subducted oceanic plate or the mantle underlying the Asian plate, and emplaced by thrust faulting (precursor of the Sagaing Fault) and uplift during the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia.

Jadeite formed independently of the intrusives by crystallization from hydrous fluids (derived by dewatering of the subducted Indian plate) that rose along fractures in the serpentinized peridotite at relatively high-pressure/low-temperature conditions during the Tertiary formation of the Himalayas (Bender, 1983). Fluids that form in these special conditions are saturated with respect to sodium aluminosilicates – jadeite at higher pressure, albite at lower pressure – so the passage of these fluids through serpentinites generated swarms of jadeitite, albite-nepheline, and albitite dikes. All of these dikes generally have central jadeite zones and external chlorite and amphibolite reaction rims at the contact with the serpentinites (Thin, 1985; Harlow and Olds, 1987; Sorensen and Harlow, 1998 and 1999). Chromite in the serpentinite locally reacted with the fluid to produce bright green (i.e., "Imperial") jadeite, usually only in late-stage veins and as clots of green in white- to lavender-white jadeite. A shift from vertical thrusting to lateral faulting on the Sagaing Fault appears to have played an important role in the uplift and exposure of jadeite-bearing serpentinite in Burma; similar tectonics occurred in Guatemala, Japan, and Kazakhstan (Harlow and Sorensen, in press).

Mining at Tawmaw

Figure 6. Once a dike is exposed at Tawmaw, jackhammers are needed to break the jadeite apart. Photo © Richard W. Hughes.

Primary Deposits

The classic primary occurrence of jadeite is on the plateau at Tawmaw. This area has been worked for over a hundred years and is said by miners to have produced all color varieties of jadeite. Other primary outcrops are found in the west, northwest, and northeast portions of the Jade Tract.

In each of the primary deposits, jadeitite dikes cross-cut the serpentinized peridotite parallel to shear zones following northeasterly strikes and dips from 18° to 90°SE. Dike thicknesses are poorly reported, probably because of weathering and the irregular swelling, pinching, and faulting-off of the dikes; however Soe Win (1968) does give a width of 5–8 feet (1.5–2.5 m) for the Khaisumaw dike at Tawmaw. Some dikes contain only jadeite and albite, while others have a boundary (on one or both sides) of amphibolite-eckermannite-glaucophane (dark gray to blue-black) or actinolite (dark green). The boundary with serpentinite is marked by a soft, green border zone that consists of a mixture of the adjacent vein minerals and chlorite, with or without calcite, actinolite, talc, and cherty masses (Chhibber, 1934b; Soe Win, 1968).

A Tawmaw mine director told GB and TO that the main dike was traceable north-northwest to Hkamti and Chindwin and even to India, surfacing and diving "like a serpent," with another branch running north to Putao. However, the recent visit to Hkamti (see pp. 14–15) and geologic constraints argue against this interpretation. Rather, the Jade Tract and Hkamti jadeite deposits appear to originate from separate, deep-seated serpentinite bodies that perhaps were derived from the same collisional process, and Putao appears to produce a different jade-like material, obviously with a different origin.

Box D: The yin-yang of nephrite mining

Before the discovery of jadeite in Upper Burma, the most important source of the green stone was the nephrite deposits south of Hotan (Khotan) in the Kunlun mountains of western China. Here, nephrite was recovered from both the White Jade and Black Jade rivers (Gump, 1962):

A Chinese writer of 1637, Sung Ying-hsing, stated that the jade searchers were often active in the autumn, and chose moonlit nights for their task because the stone had the quality of reflecting such light. In spite of this alleged natural fluorescence, the haul would be a mixed one and had to be carefully sorted. The same writer mentioned that yü was considered to be masculine [yang] in character, so it followed naturally that women seekers [yin] would be attracted to it, and vice versa. A woodcut in his book depicts three determined naked ladies busy in the flowing waters of the Kara-kash. However, the writer airily excused himself from sharing the belief by adding, "This is perhaps foolishness on the part of the natives."

– Geoffrey Wills, 1972, Jade of the East

Secondary Deposits

Most jadeite is recovered from secondary deposits in the Uru Boulder Conglomerate (Figure 4), southeast of the Tawmaw-hosting serpentinite body. The conglomerate is exposed over an area 3–6.5 km in width, which is widest at Mamon. It ranges up to 300 m thick and is probably Pleistocene to sub-Recent (Chhibber, 1934b). South of Hwehka, however, jadeite boulders are found in conglomerate interlayered with blue-gray sands and coal seams that are believed to be derived from a Tertiary (Miocene?) species of tree (Bleeck, 1908; Chhibber, 1934a). Typical secondary deposits are located mostly west of the Uru River, including Sate Mu, Hpakangyi (adjacent to Hpakan), and Maw-sisa.

Figure 7. Mining of the Uru conglomerate is done in step-like claims approximately 5 m wide that were originally separated by thin "walls." Photo © Olivier Galibert.

Mining Techniques

Dike Mining

Unlike secondary deposits, where the miner has to determine which of the myriad boulders is jadeite, the dikes contain readily recognizable material. Historically, miners started a fire near the dike and then threw water on the rock to crack it. Today, at Tawmaw, often miners first must use backhoes, scrapers, and other earth-moving equipment to expose the jadeite dikes, or rudimentary digging to create shafts to reach them. Shafts observed at the time of RWH and FW's 1997 visit reached depths of approximately 10–20 m (Figure 5). Once a dike is exposed, miners use dynamite and jackhammers to break the jadeite apart and away from the country rock (Figure 6).

Boulder and Gravel Mining

The workings at Sate Mu and Maw-sisa are, in many respects, typical of secondary jadeite mines. The Uru Boulder Conglomerate is as much as 300 m deep in places, and alluvial mining has barely scratched the surface. It appeared from the open cuts that there is a huge quantity of material remaining to be extracted. We saw people working about 18 m down into the conglomerate, stripping it away with primitive tools.

Imperial jade

Figure 8. Fei-ts'ui
Imperial jade ring and cabochons. Courtesy Pala International; photo: Wimon Manorotkul

The first step in mining the conglomerate is removal of the overburden, taung moo kyen (literally, "head cap removal"). Since the "overburden" (per Chhibber, 1934b, a layer of alluvium of variable thickness followed by a pebble-gravel layer over the Uru Conglomerate) also may contain jadeite, workers must search this material, too. Each claim is only about 5 m wide; to keep from encroaching onto the neighbor's area, miners leave a thin wall of conglomerate as a partition. Eventually the walls themselves weather away; nevertheless, when seen from above, the result is spectacular – several square kilometers of step-like benches, as if an ancient city were being excavated (Figure 7). At Maw-sisa, diggers concentrated on mining a black conglomerate layer called ah may jaw, where jadeite is said to be richest.

At Hpakangyi, more than 10,000 workers excavated an area that had reached hundreds of meters deep (Figure 12). Waste was piled into a waiting truck, and then emptied directly into the river that bisects Hpakan. At the dump, jade pickers scrambled over the riverbank to search for jade overlooked at the source. Along the banks of the Uru River, large mounds of boulders attest to two centuries of mining. When the water level is high, the river is worked by divers.

River mining at Mamon and Maw-sisa

Figure 9. At Mamon and Maw-sisa in particular, miners take advantage of the seasons when the river is high to dive for jade. While a man on land or a raft works the crude air pump (which resembles four bicycle pumps strapped together), this diver at Maw-sisa searches the river bottom for jade with the hose between his teeth (inset). Photos © Richard W. Hughes. Click on the image for a larger photo.

Miners admitted that production was erratic at best. While occasionally they would find 20–30 pieces in a single day, often they would not recover any jadeite boulders for days. Most of these boulders weigh less than 1 kg, although some reach 300 kg. Only a tiny fraction of the jadeite boulders recovered contain jewelry-quality material.

Identifying Jadeite Boulders

After viewing the methods by which jade is mined, the first question any observer asks is: How do miners separate the occasional jadeite boulder from the thousands of other boulders that look so similar? Repeated questioning of various jade traders, cutters, and miners yielded the following clues.

The most important member of the mining team is the one who operates the jackhammer or hoe, for he will spot most of the jadeite boulders. When struck with a metal tool, a jadeite boulder produces a different sound (rings more) than other rocks. Such blows also may expose the "show points" (pyat kyet in Burmese and "pine flowers" to the Chinese; Gump, 1962) –the color of the jadeite – beneath the skin

Jade rough with show points

Figure 10. Water readily reveals the "show points" of bright green jadeite on this boulder. Photo © Richard W. Hughes.

Miners also look for a characteristic fibrous texture (yumm) in some jadeite boulders. Although jadeite jade is not normally thought of as having fibrous texture, it sometimes is found in jade that is 100% jadeitic pyroxene and in other cases may be related to partial replacement by – or admixture with – an amphibole (Htein and Naing, 1994, 1995). Also, jadeite is typically smoother than most other boulders and will not show the crystalline reflections (possibly from mica or quartz) often seen in the others. Another indicator of jadeite is a type of sheen, called shin. Black shin is said to "infect" or "damage" the stone; the miners consider it a harbinger of bad luck. According to Chhibber (1934b), shin is amphibolite or amphibole schist. Such an impurity would account for the lower quality of this jadeite.

Jadeite jade also has a greater "heft" (specific gravity of about 3.34) than other types of rocks in the conglomerate. In addition, divers feel that it sticks slightly to their hands or feet under water, a property that has been used historically by the Chinese to separate both jadeite and nephrite from substitutes ("The art of feeling jade," 1962).


The Maw Sit vein, which produces maw-sit-sit, lies about 2 km from Kansi at the northeastern end of the Jade Tract (again, see Figure 2). The maw-sit-sit mine consists of a narrow, vertical trench cut that is some 9 m deep. The total length of the active mining area in November 1997 was approximately 200 m.

Other Jadeite Localities in Burma

According to Chhibber (1934b), other occurrences of jadeite in present-day Burma include Mawhun, 20 km southwest of Mohnyin, and a site on the bank of the Chindwin River, in the Hkamti area. It is possible that the latter reference is actually to the Nansibon mining region, described below, which was recently visited by one of the authors (GEH). The United Nations (1979) reported the extraction of low-quality jade from steeply dipping late-Tertiary boulder conglomerates in the Indaw-Tigyang area, which extends another 50 km south of Mawhun. Similar conglomerates were observed at Nansibon (again, see below).

At Nansibon, backhoes are used to work the serpentinite boulder conglomerate in which jadeite boulders occur in narrow horizontal concentrations

Figure 11. At Nansibon, backhoes are used to work the serpentinite boulder conglomerate in which jadeite boulders occur in narrow horizontal concentrations. Photo © George E. Harlow.

Hkamti Area: Nansibon and Natmaw

On an expedition to the jade mines by a group traveling under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in January and February 2000, four geologists and two gemologists visited the mining area called Nansibon (Namsibum, Manhsibon). It was the first recorded visit by Western gemologists to this area. Located in the Sagaing Division, about 35 km (22 miles) southeast of the Chindwin River town of Hkamti, Nansibon is a group of joint-venture tracts that extend about 2 km along a north-south trending ridge in the middle of dense jungle (central location at N25°51'24", E95°51'30" determined by GPS measurements). The deposit is a steeply inclined (60°–90°E) serpentinite boulder conglomerate in which jadeite cobbles from a few centimeters to perhaps one meter in diameter are "concentrated" in a few narrow horizons. Mining is restricted to mechanized excavation of surface exposures of the conglomerate (Figure 11), which disappears both north and south under Tertiary river sands and lake sediments of the Chindwin basin. Now largely unworked, Natmaw (Nawmaw, Nathmaw) is a smaller area roughly 30 km south of Nansibon, where miners have explored jadeite dikes in serpentinite. As the road there was impassable and time was constrained, the group could not visit these latter mines.

According to current and retired officials from the Myanma Gems Enterprise (MGE), relative to the Jade Tract, Nansibon presently produces a large portion of the gem-quality Imperial jadeite mined in Burma, lesser amounts of other colors and "commercial" jadeite (used for carvings and bangles), and small amounts of "utility" jade (used for tiles, building veneers, and very large carvings; "Myanma jade," 1991). During the recent visit, GEH and gemologist Robert Kane acquired a comprehensive suite of jadeite from Nansibon in colors including black and many shades of green, lavender, blue-green, "nearly blue," and "carnelian orange"; these varied from translucent to semi-translucent. They saw numerous small (2–5 mm diameter) cabochons of translucent Imperial green jadeite from Natmaw.


Jadeite is also found some 320 km (200 miles) north of Myitkyina, near Putao, but the deposit was reported by Chhibber to be inaccessible and the quality of the jadeite poor. Harlow and Kane were told by U Shwe Maik, former director of jade acquisition for MGE, that the alleged jade from Putao is actually green massive hydrogrossular (now hibschite). They obtained a sample for study.


Figure 12. Thousands of workers remove the dirt and gravel at Hpakangyi to reach the Uru conglomerate and its promise of fine jadeite. Using the most rudimentary of carrying devices – two crudely fashioned bamboo buckets – this young miner leads a trail of laborers up the steep path from the bottom of the pit to a truck that will carry the waste to the river. Photo © Richard W. Hughes. Click on the image for a larger photo.

Conclusion – Riding the Snake

A truck slowly moves alongside the small river that snakes through a valley bottom. Hundreds of years before, thick jungle lay everywhere. Today all that is visible is brown, earth, brown, earth, ubiquitious. Eventually it arrives at Hpakangyi (Figure 12). As one crosses the rise separating Hpakan from Hpakangyi, all becomes clear. More than 10,000 workers coat an excavation several hundred feet deep, digging, carrying, shifting, loading, delving their way to heaven, perched atop the head of a long green snake whose coils extend around the world. It is here that the green stone is found in its finest quality.

Bridge to heaven or ladder to hell? That matters little to the diggers. For while patience might be a virtue to the laopans, coolies are paid only by how much earth they carry, just a few cents per load. They have no time for patience. They care little for jade itself, seeing the green stone only as a road to gold – an escape from the poverty endemic to most of Burma. As one miner declared in broken English: "I am fortune seeker!" He made no mention of seeking jade. Patience? For the coolies, too much patience only prolongs their stay in hell.

Jade picker at the river

Figure 13. The color of luck
Miner with jade at the Uru river tailings dump in the center of Hpakan. Photo © Richard W. Hughes.

Catching Heaven's Stone

As afternoon stretches towards evening, waste is piled into a waiting truck. When full, the mechanical beast leaves Hpakangyi, twisting along the Uru river. Crossing a bridge, it empties its waste directly in the river that bisects Hpakan, center of the jade universe.

At the dump there are no Chinese bosses, no onlookers, no audience, only the search and the searchers. While trucks disgorge their loads, jade pickers scramble over the river bank. Nothing to carry, no price per load – all is stripped bare – only the essentials. Along the river, only one thing remains – the prize (Figure 13).

The color of money

Figure 14. The color of money
Examining jadeite in Hpakan. Photo © Olivier Galibert.

As diggers examine the boulders, they give each a sharp rap with a hammer, then discard the unworthy. Patience, patience, clank, clunk, hammer against stone, patience, patience, hurry, hurry, discard, discard, and so it goes, over and over, hundreds of times. This is the Jade Land symphony, the dance of the kingfisher – fei-ts'ui.

In a corner of the dump, the drama climaxes. There it is – color – jade – stone of green – stone of wealth. This is luck, joss, fortune, the very essence of the jade business, something wrapped so tightly round the Stone of Heaven and its dancing partners that not even a diamond-laced saw blade can separate them.

Leaving Las Vegas

Figure 15. Leaving Las Vegas
Photo © Richard W. Hughes.

The stone is quickly taken to a wooden dwelling on a hill above Hpakan – no time to spare, hurry, hurry. There a laopan calmly waits. Patience, patience – he knows those who hurry lose, they miss the prize, they don't find heaven.

After a brief examination, a bid is offered, refused, then a counteroffer accepted. While the laopan counts out a pile of mud-stained bills, he smiles to himself, content with the thought that he, the patient one, is now one step closer to heaven. As for the digger, he simply walks away, thinking quietly to himself…

His track leads down to the small encampment he calls home. As the sun's final glow fades, its aura illuminates the digger preparing for the night ahead. With a mortician's care, all the possessions in his earthly world are gathered together and placed into burlap sacks. These are then strapped onto a mule's saddle, a stone from the nearby river helping to balance the load.

As dusk descends he sets off into the mist, carefully working his way alongside the small river snaking through the valley bottom (Figure 15). Brown morphs into green, as the surrounding jungle exerts its hold on the land. While the sticky green glow eventually fades to black, the sounds of human activity disappear into the distance. Soon, the only noise is that of the man whistling softly, urging the animal on. Clip, clop, hoof against stone, one foot in front of the other, each step a mark of patience – down the track… under the moonlight… through history… into immortality… away from hell… towards heaven….

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