Traders inspect hunks of the green stone, particularly prized for its beauty and symbolism in China. "Gold is valuable, but jade is priceless," runs an old Chinese saying.
These stones are on display at a tea shop in Hpakant township, part of northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, a rugged region sandwiched between China and India. Nowhere on Earth does jade exist in such quantity and quality.
Despite the vast riches that lie beneath the earth, comparatively little wealth comes back to Myanmar’s government. Half of all jade sales are "unofficial" - that is, spirited over the border into China with little or no formal taxation. This represents billions of dollars in lost revenues that could be spent on rebuilding a nation shattered by nearly half a century of military dictatorship.
Foreign companies are not permitted to extract jade. But it is an open secret that most of the 20 or so largest operations in Hpakant are owned by Chinese companies or their proxies, say gem traders and other industry insiders in Kachin State.
"Of course, some (profit) goes to the government," said Yup Zaw Hkawng, chairman of Jadeland Myanmar, the most prominent Kachin mining company in Hpakant. "But mostly it goes into the pockets of Chinese families and the families of the former (Burmese) government."
Other players include the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), the investment arm of the country's much-feared military, and Burmese tycoons such as Zaw Zaw, chairman of Max Myanmar, who made their fortunes collaborating with the former junta.