Is the Burmese ruby the new blood diamond?

Myanmar produces some of the finest rubies, sapphire and jade in the world. However, the mining industry fuels the country's controversial military, raising concerns about the ethical value of its gemstones

April 11, 2017: A handout image of the Graff Ruby. Courtesy Graff *** Local Caption ***  Graff Ruby.jpg
Powered by automated translation

“Is your jewellery funding genocide?” There’s a hard-hitting headline, if ever there was one. It was followed by 900-plus words penned by a representative of SumOfUs, a watchdog organisation that launches online campaigns to hold corporations accountable on issues such as climate change, and human and animal rights.

The piece, which was published in December last year, argues that luxury brands must stop dealing in gems from Myanmar – the Southeast Asian country known for its high-quality rubies. The reason? Funds from the mining industry are, in part, controlled by and distributed to the country's military, which has been accused of committing horrific atrocities against the country's Muslim minority – crimes that the United Nations has gone on record to call "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

A handful of jewellery houses, most notably Cartier, responded to the 140,000-strong SumOfUs petition, and proclaimed that they will not trade in gemstones from Myanmar in the foreseeable future. “As part of our continuous review process to ensure ethical sourcing, Cartier has decided to stop purchasing gemstones from Myanmar, which will become fully effective as of December 8, 2017. Cartier will not purchase certified goods from the country, and will make its best effort to ensure that non-certified gemstones did not originate there,” declared a reactive statement from the French luxury goods brand, which also went on to add: “Cartier strongly believes in the importance of ethically sourced materials, [even though] current international rules permit these gemstone purchases.”

Ruby necklace from Cartier, which has boycotted trading in stones from Myanmar for the time being
Ruby necklace from Cartier, which has boycotted trading in stones from Myanmar for the time being

That last bit of wording is particularly noteworthy, as it indicates that while a free-for-all trade policy is now in place, this was not always the case. In fact, in 2008, the United States set up a ban on the import of jade and rubies from military-ruled Myanmar, a directive that was already in place in Europe, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Norway.

The ban was lifted by the various countries between 2012 and 2016, and remains so until the present day. Which makes the timing of Cartier’s potentially loss-inducing decision interesting. The Rohingya community has, after all, been targeted on and off since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. Additionally, to a true connoisseur of luxury gemstones, rubies from Myanmar are the very epitome of precious purity, with some of these stones claiming more cost per carat than diamonds.

Historically, the ancient mines of Mogok in the Mandalay region were famed for producing 90 per cent of the world's "pigeon's blood" rubies, so called for their hue and intensity. Ancient Hindu texts describe these as a tie between the "seeds of the pomegranate and the eyes of the Greek partridge". The stones are coveted for their high-intensity colour, which is a combination of the bluish-red body and the super-charged fluorescent red light it emits, owing to a low presence of iron. The rubies are also famed for being made up of "facetable material", according to Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide by Richard Hughes, which means that, internally, they are some of the cleanest stones on earth.

Despite the subsequent tapping of other mines, the rubies that have been unearthed in Myanmar remain the most prominent, including the most expensive ruby ever sold. The 25.59-carat Sunrise went under the hammer at the Sotheby’s Magnificent and Noble Jewels auction in Geneva in 2015, selling for a staggering Dh112 million, which works out to more than a million dollars per carat.

 LOT 502
Property of a Lady
'The Sunrise Ruby',
A superb and extremely rare ruby and diamond ring weighing 25.59 carats, Cartier
Estimate: CHF 11,700,000-17,500,000 / US$ 12,000,000-18,000,000
Sold for CHF 28,250,000 (US$ 30,335,698)
CREDIT: Sotheby's *** Local Caption ***  al99 sothebys BLOG 2.jpeg
The Sunrise Ruby

At Dh32m, the world's second most expensive ruby is also from Myanmar. The 8.62-carat, cushion-shaped stone was initially sold by the House of Graff to Greek financier Dimitri Mavrommatis. The stone was scooped up for a second time eight years later at more than double its original price, by founder Laurence Graff, who renamed it the Graff Ruby, and said at the time that "it was the natural thing to do. The Graff Ruby has a life and legacy that extends beyond us all. When you buy such a stone, you are not just a trader; you are a collector and guardian while you own it." Interesting as this turn of events might be, it's not altogether surprising because the Mogok mine is believed to be virtually depleted, which only adds to the price and appeal of its precious red fruit.

Rubies aside, Myanmar births mountains of other high-quality precious and semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, garnets, moonstones, peridots, chrysoberyl and, most notably, lustrous blue sapphires. The region is also the source of virtually all of the world’s finest jadeite – an almost translucent green stone that is prized above almost all other materials in neighbouring, high-spending China, a market that’s attracted most international high-end brands in the past years.

Why, then, would Cartier et al not continue to nibble away at this gem-encrusted pie as long as they are able? In a phrase: conscious consumerism. No matter what legal restrictions are or aren't in place, more luxury buyers around the world are demanding to know where their products come from. So it is perhaps inevitable that when NGOs such as SumOfUs target companies that they say are "profiting from murder and mayhem", both buyers and brands take notice.

“End users want to know that the gemstones they buy have been mined responsibly and set in jewellery in a manner that is both transparent and ethical,” confirms Sean Gilbertson, the chief executive of Gemfields. A visit to the mining group’s Montepuez Ruby Mine in Mozambique and Kagem Emerald Mine in Zambia shows that it champions legitimacy, transparency and integrity in the sourcing of its coloured stones. Gemfields also focuses on building sustainable livelihoods for its employees and is mindful of the environment, with an aim to operate zero-accident mines. “Many of our clients visit our mines and ask for detailed information regarding our activities, as well as visiting community projects to see the positive effects of our involvement with local communities for themselves,” adds Gilbertson.

By definition, an ethical gemstone is one that has a traceable provenance and transparent route from mine to market. In the case of Myanmar, there have been multiple reports of the inhumane conditions and low wages that plague the military-dominated mining community. These have become much more prominent in light of the recent wave of violence. Hannah Lownsbrough, executive director of SumOfUs, says in her piece: “The situation in Myanmar is complex, and finding ways to unpick centuries of conflict and persecution will not be straightforward. Far easier, however, is to take clear steps towards cutting off financing to the forces that continue to abuse the Rohingya people in Myanmar.” She recommends stemming the income stream by completely shunning the country’s rubies and other precious stones.

“Any avenue of purchase that promotes violence is unethical. So buying from Myanmar under the current political scenario is completely unacceptable. This should be the stance for any company until the country makes repatriations and amends its policies,” agrees Nishith Shah, chief executive of Dubai-based La Marquise Jewellery. “Since the conflict began, we started purchasing our rubies from ethical sources in Mozambique,” he reveals.

MOGOK, MANDALAY REGION, MYANMAR - 2016/11/07: Workers come up from the bottom of a ruby mine gallery. (Photo by Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Workers come up from the bottom of the Mogok ruby mine gallery. Getty Images

During the commercial embargo against Myanmar, African rubies filled the void, most notably those from the Montepuez mine in Mozambique, which was discovered in 2011 and subsequently taken over by Gemfields. The mine is known for its high-quality rubies, some of which can be compared to pigeon-bloods from Myanmar. “Our estimate is that Gemfields in Mozambique alone already supplies approximately 30 per cent of the world’s rubies. As such, the supply of rubies is now much more diversified than in the past, and sources from countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, Thailand and even Iceland will provide customers with greater choice. And the competition between them will drive greater transparency as each goes the extra mile to appease customers,” explains Gilbertson.

Should everyone then follow Cartier, Tiffany & Co and La Marquise’s example and boycott the Burmese blood gemstones altogether? The solution, alas, is not quite so simple. While part of the profit from the gemstones unearthed on a daily basis may fund the militia, some of it also trickles down to the largely innocent mining community.

“We surely don’t want to see Burma go off the radar. The history and legacy of Burmese rubies is unparalleled. Many people are employed in the sector and we wouldn’t want people to lose their livelihood,” says Dev Shetty, president and chief executive of Fura Gems, a Dubai headquartered mining and marketing company. “A complete boycott would not be possible in any case, as there are a lot of rubies already on the market, and sitting in the windows and safes of many jewellers around the world. One must also remember that not all mining in Burma funds unethical activity, so we can’t single out the entire ruby industry. We believe that the problem in Burma is short-term, and there is still hope.” Here’s hoping.


Read more: