A History of Sapphires in Culture: King Mindon and King Thibaw of Burma

Throughout time, sapphires have been revered for their beauty, their strength and durability, and the perceived powers of wellness and protection. In a celebration of the special cultural relevance of sapphires, we have gathered together some of our favorite stories to share of historical sapphires through all cultures. The final story, Part X, concludes with King Mindon 1808–1878 and King Thibaw 1859–1916 of Burma.

King Mindon 1808–1878 and King Thibaw 1859–1916 of Burma

The penultimate ruler of Burma (now Myanmar), King Mindon, was considered an able and just ruler, but he was also obsessed with rubies and sapphires from the legendary Mogôk Valley. When King Mindon moved his capital to Mandalay in 1859, it is said that he buried a trove of precious sapphires and rubies under the foundations of his new palace to appease malevolent spirits called nats.

Such was his obsession that King Mindon ordered samples of gem gravel shipped from the Mogôk sapphire mines hundreds of miles away so he could personally sort the material in the palace courtyard, eyes peeled for rough sapphires and rubies.

He taxed the gem trade by confiscating stones over a certain size and quality.  He also taxed sales at the Royal Gem Bourse in Mandalay after it was established in 1866.   Any miners caught smuggling or otherwise cheating the crown out of its “royal stones,” could pay with their lives.

After the death of King Mindon, King Thibaw, the last ruler of the Konbaung Dynasty came to power amid great scandal and intrigue—including two ghastly massacres that eliminated all other contenders for the throne, their allies, and their families.

At ceremonial affairs and in a number of photographs King Thibaw wore splendid gem-incrusted regalia including a “sapphire ring worth a monarch’s ransom.” King Thibaw was a profligate spender who incurred great debt despite Burma’s enormous natural bounty.  Under King Thibaw’s reign, conditions in the Mogôk region deteriorated as the miners were increasingly taxed and repressed.

When the British invaded Mandalay in 1885 and forced him into exile, the royal treasury and countless jewels mysteriously disappeared, despite the fact that they were entrusted to the British Chief Political Officer, Col. E.B. Sladen. Today, we can only imagine the tantalizing items described in the official inventory.