More than a million miners desperately excavate the bedrock of a remote valley hidden in the shadows of the Himalayas. They are in search of just one thing – jadeite, the most valuable gemstone in the world. But with wages paid in heroin and HIV rampant, the miners are paying an even higher price. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark travel to the death camps of Burma.
Follow the flurry of shawls and the vapour trail of perfume through the arcades of Pacific Place, passing Gucci, Cartier and Tiffany, beside adverts featuring silver forks that twirl gold chains like spaghetti and you’ll arrive at Hong Kong’s five-star JW Marriott Hotel.
Every year, twice a year, in one of the Marriott’s luxurious salons, Christie’s stage two extraordinary auctions that reap the kind of profits normally only associated with the sale of a Monet or a Van Gogh. But it’s not paintings that are for sale here.
Flourishing his gavel, Christie’s urbane vice chairman Francois Curiel resembles a starter at the 1,000 Guineas, his stewards corralling clients into position. A skitter of Jimmy Choos paw the shagpile, a line of glossy manes quiver for the off.
Virtually everyone at this Hong King sale would rather remain anonymous. Paparazzi hang around outside the Marriott hoping to snap a movie star or perhaps even a drug baron. We spy a few faces including Kowloon jeweller Sammy Chow whose family once dealt to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, Joan Crawford and Merle Oberon and whose clients today include Imelda Marcos and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Frank Tieh is also at the sale, pacing himself for the running, a wealthy Dallas collector and real estate magnate whose father was revered across Asia as the gem king of Peking. In the front row are newly weds from the Chinese mainland, shopping for honeymoon gifts. Experts from London’s Bond Street hang to the left and the right, fearful that they have far too little to spend at a sale where only the world’s super rich can hope to contend.
Everyone is here to bid for a sliver of the most precious stone in the world, not sapphires, rubies or even diamonds, but an obscure silicate of aluminium, sodium and silicon – jadeite. Barely known in the West, it is revered across the East as the Stone of Heaven and is said to resemble the colours of a kingfisher’s neck feathers, the only thing on earth that comes near to matching its brilliant, bottle-green hue.
‘A magnificent jadeite cabochon ring. And just to let you know my book is full of bids,’ Curiel purrs. The running will be furious for a stone that adorns Hollywood stars like Michelle Yeoh and Nicole Kidman. ‘Five, six, six, seven, eight. With you at the back, sir, in the sport’s jacket again.’ And before you get complacent, remember that Curiel is taking bids in millions of HK dollars. ‘The bid is all the way from New York, Geneva, to London, to Paris at $12m.’ A Christie’s salesman talks furiously into a phone, wringing another am from his unseen client. ‘One more go, to 14m? Yes? No, too late. It’s now with you Anthony, at 16m.’ Curiel swivels towards the slick Anthony Lin, Christie’s Hong Kong chairman, who is dancing with his mobile phone head-set in a silver tongued ballet.
‘Six-teen-mill-ion-Hong-Kong-dollars,’ shouts Curiel. Excitement gallops around the room. ‘Seven-teen-mill-ion-dollars,’ cries Curiel as another Asian collector shoots his paddle into the air.
The gavel hovers. A crackle of expectation. Faces flushed with the thrill of the chase. Then yet another paddle rises. It’s the man they call Mr Fuji, a Hong Kong Chinese businessman in the photographic film trade, who’s here doing a little shopping with his daughter Betty. ‘Eighteen-and-a-half-million.’
A brief hush before the gavel falls. Curiel is delighted. The sale is going exceptionally well and by the time it concludes, three more world records will have been set by jadeite.
Mr Fuji is swathed in adulation, a steward kneels before him with a tray of free sandwiches, after all the photographic film tycoon has just paid £1.48m for a jelly bean-sized jadeite ring.
A gem-trade magazine we pick up in the lobby features an intriguing quote by Richard Hughes, a US specialist. ‘We are not selling gemstones, something that has no value to anyone,’ Hughes advises his fellow jewellers. ‘What we are selling is illusion. People do not buy a stone they buy a story, a vision of a mine or country, a bit of history, something they can tell their friends about. De Beers knows this, which is why they don’t sell diamonds, they sell love.’
Open a Christie’s catalogue and absorb the allure of this prohibitive jewel. ‘For the superstitious the identity of the previous collectors is important, many not wishing to own a piece that brings poor fortune or illness,’ the sales material gushes. ‘This is especially the case with jadeite jewellery worn next to the skin and surrounded with mystique, believed by some to be able to absorb the essence of its previous owners.’
The pages are lacquered with pictures. The Qianlong Emperor of China who in the 18th century ransomed his kingdom for the Stone of Heaven and attempted to win the hand of a consort, the legendary Fragrant Concubine of Kashgar, by showering her with jadeite gifts including a pendant carved into a delicate pepper. The Dragon Lady, Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled over China in the 19th century with wands made of jadeite and slippers fringed in the stone. But no one at this sale is talking about the source of the most valuable stone in the world, a place encircled by 10,000 Burmese troops, a shifting city of a million labourers. In the jungles of northern Burma lies one of the remotest mines in the world that has defied western treasure hunters since the voyages of Marco Polo – until we found it, after hoodwinking the Burmese junta. After a journey that had taken three years to prepare, what we discovered was a medieval vision of hell, a place of poor fortune and terrible illness.
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