Unrivalled, jade remains a yardstick for gem industry

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By May Thandar Win

MYANMAR jade, unrivalled in quality around the world, fills its country with pride.

The English word ‘jade’ is derived from ijada, Spanish for ‘the stone that cures kidney diseases’. The Chinese word for jade is yu, a general term for any stone that humans utilise for their own purposes.

In Myanmar it is called kyauk sein, which literally means ‘green stone’.
Jade is geologically classified into two types: nephrite and jadeite. The latter type is harder, has more lustre and is more valuable. It is found in only five countries – Myanmar, Japan, the US, Guatemala and Russia.

However, jadeite from the other countries cannot compare with the unique tone, texture and translucence of that which comes from upper Myanmar.
Jade has long been used in religious rituals and as a symbol of power and wealth for emperors and dignitaries.

However, many people in Asia also believe the stone holds the power to assure good health and good fortune for those who wear it as an amulet.
Despite Myanmar’s status as a source of some of the most prized jade in the world, regulations are preventing the country from taking its place in the world market.

“At the moment, we must rely on the Myanmar Gems Emporium and the Gems Trading Centre (GTC) system for selling jade ,” said U Nay Win Tun, the chairman of Ruby Dragon Company.

The Myanmar Gems Emporium takes place twice a year, in March and October, and affords merchants the chance to bid on precious gem lots.

The GTC is a year-round gem trading system implemented by the Myanma Gems Enterprise in 1994.

Moreover, most foreign merchants only buy rough jade lots over fears that the price of rough jade will rise if they buy too many finished products, U Nay Win Tun said.

“At every emporium, about 85 per cent of jade sales consist of rough lots,” said U Nay Win Tun.

He said that the current jade trading system impinges on the country’s industrial development and constitutes a sharp contrast to the way business is conducted in China, Hong Kong and Thailand.

“Though we produce exclusive jades, all the finished products are made under the name of other countries or foreign companies. Our jade-cutting technology and designs are also backwards by international standards,” U Nay Win Tun said.

“Only 10 per cent of Myanmar’s jade is made into finished products in the country due to the high cost of technicians,” he said.

As a consequence of undeveloped technology and design, local finished products cannot compete with those made in foreign countries, further discouraging the domestic finished products business.

“Sometimes foreign businesses use low-quality rough jade, but they have the technology to polish it to make it look better. So even though our finished products are of better quality, we cannot compete with them,” U Nay Win Tun said.

“We are hoping that trade regulations are liberalised so we can gain knowledge about the international jade market and keep up with design, technological and market demands,” he said.

Such liberalisation will increase the nation’s revenue and boost the prestige of Myanmar jade, he added.

Ma Shwe Cynn, the managing director of the Gold Uni Jewellery Company, said that efforts must be made to attract more visitors to Myanmar and promote the local jade market.

“If tourists find that travel in Myanmar is enjoyable and smooth, more visitors will surely come, so we need to make sure that hassle-free hotel accommodations, car rentals and entertainment are widely available,” she said.

Jade is particularly popular among people in Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, she said.

“China is becoming our biggest potential customer for jade because its economy is growing,” she said.

“Bangles are the best-selling item because nearly every Chinese woman aged more than 40 years believes that wearing a jade bracelet is good for their health,” said U Nay Win Tun.

Although jade can be found in a variety of colours – including white, yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, black and green – the most valuable type, known as imperial jade, possesses an emerald hue. In Myanmar, it is found only in the Phakant and Tawmaw regions in Kachin State, and Khamti in Sagaing Division.

Selected monthly economic indicators released by the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development show that during the 2002-2003 fiscal year, total jade production was more than 10.8 million kilograms, up from 8.2 million kilograms in 2001-2002.

According to figures from the Myanma Gems Enterprise, there were 635 foreign attendees at the 41st Myanmar Gems Emporium in March, up from 603 at the March 2003 event. Out of a total of 1254 lots available, 503 were sold at a total value of US$12.91 million. In 2003, 447 out of 1423 lots were sold at total value of $14.23 million.

At the mid-year emporium in October 2003, which saw 457 foreign attendees, 348 jade lots out of a total of 1042 were sold. They were valued at $7.9 million. This marked a decrease in revenue from the 2002 mid-year emporium, at which 401 out of 1041 jade lots valued at $8.24 million were sold.