We took a short flight in a small plane from Yangon, met with Wyn our new guide and were soon on the road to Mandalay. A surprisingly good road, more like a UK dual carriageway, but as she explained Mandalay is the centre of the commercial world for Myanmar with a 300 mile direct access into China, India and Thailand so the government has invested in the transport infrastructure for the city.
Agricultural produce is exported and agricultural technology is imported, but that didn’t prevent us from stopping every ten minutes or so to let the working oxen and buffaloes cross the road from one field to another.
Part of that commercial world is the secretive jade trade worth a staggering $31Billion to Myanmar, although where that wealth ends up is any ones guess. We visited Mandalay’s jade market in the middle of the city where the locals meet the international traders, many from China. Like any other trading market it starts early, is fast and frenetic and full of characters, but the jade market is huge, over 40,000 buyers and sellers attending every morning.
The market is actually a production line for the manufacture of jade jewellery, mainly bangles that bring good health and good luck to the wearer, their price depends on the quality of the stone but can vary from as little as $5 to as much as $200,000. For a bangle?
The jade is mined a hundred miles from Mandalay and brought to the market in its raw form, boulders of it, some as large as a small car. Helene was invited into an open fronted factory by some young inquisitive men to demonstrate how they cut the huge rocks.
I say inquisitive because we are somewhat of a novelty in Mandalay, particularly Helene. We are occasionally stopped by locals to join them in a selfie, or by parents to explain who we are to their young children pointing at us. Wyn explained that some, especially those from the country, will never have seen a woman with blonde hair before.
As Helene watched the cutting and polishing process a buyer on behalf of a large Chinese importer invited me to help inspect the cut rocks he was purchasing.
How much help I could be I’m not sure but I was given a small powerful torch to hold against the smooth sleek surface to examine the clarity of the rich green stone. The buyer held his mobile next to the rock giving a live video feed back to China and asked for my appraisal.‘Is the green a consistent colour across the stone?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it’s all dark green.’
‘What about any flaws? Can you see any lines or cracks in the jade?’ he asked, holding the camera closer to my torch. ‘And, what about the depth of colour?’
This was all getting a bit technical, the seller was eager to move my torch to the best parts of the stone, which I now noticed had red rings lightly drawn over its surface. These indicated how many bangles could be cut from it, about twenty from this particular loaf sized stone.
‘It looks clear to me,’ I said, ‘and the colour is the same across the stone, quite deep.’
He translated my comments to his Chinese importer on the mobile, answered a few questions and shook the hand of the seller. It appeared the deal was done. Wads of notes wrapped in bands appeared and the stone was wrapped in some grease proof paper that made it look even more like a loaf of bread. Buyer and seller looked pleased with the transaction and I looked fairly bemused by it all, I do hope the importer is satisfied with my purchase.
‘I would like a piece of jade,’ said Helene.
‘Well, we couldn’t be in a better place,’ I said, ‘And, as luck would have it you are now with an experienced buyer, I know what to look for. Let’s start with colour.’
‘As dark as possible,’ she said.
‘Oh! Are you sure?’ asked Wyn, looking rather concerned.
‘Don’t you worry,’ I said, ‘we’ll find it from one of these small traders and I’ll drive a hard bargain.’
We had now arrived at the end of the production line, this part of the market was full of one-man-band sellers behind portable tables displaying their wares of beautifully cut and highly polished bangles, brooches and beads.
A small man wearing a long dusty longyi and a huge bright green emerald ring set in silver, was shuffling jade stones around an old white tray balanced on a plastic table that may have once been in his garden. In amongst them was a deep dark green stone about the size of a finger nail, perfect.
‘Leave this to me Helene,’ I said, borrowing his pencil torch to inspect the quality of the jade.
‘Clarity and consistency of colour good,’ I reported. ‘No blemishes or flaws. Depth of colour good. Yes, I think this will do. How much is this one?’ I asked.
‘$10,000’ he said.
Wyn looked expectantly at me, Helene just laughed.
David Moore is Author of ‘Turning Left Around the World’. Published by Mirador and available from Amazon, it is an entertaining account of David and his wife’s travel adventures – often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic.