Embargo on gemstones originating from Myanmar, formerly Burma is nothing new. But the backlash, and divisive commentary in the wake of the latest officially implemented ban is bound to polarize many members within the gem trade. And oddly enough, all those voices have a point - and a valid one.
Aimed at penalizing the Burmese ruling junta through embargo, the US government had banned products coming from Burma since 2003. However the broad language of that earlier sanction permitted the importation of Burmese-origin gems that were cut or polished elsewhere. On July 30, 2008 President George Bush signed into law the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act, restricting the import of precious Burmese gems and stones.
Some observers claim the previous sanctions had a loophole. Others argue it was no loophole - that the earlier ban simply expressed a different set of parameters for gemstone importation. So, unlike the former embargo, the JADE Act ban now clearly states that Burmese-origin jadeite and ruby, including those which have undergone “substantial transformation” elsewhere, are to be banned from coming into the US. The only exception would be Burmese gems brought in for ‘personal consumption.’
While the industry contemplates these new developments, the global gemstone community already voices disparate opinions. Director of Public Affairs for Jewelers of America (JA), Peggy Jo Donohue assured that JA will make certain that its members clearly understand that no rubies or jade mined in Burma may be imported legally into the U.S. And, Donohue added, to be certain, “Jewelers should seek written assurance from their suppliers that they will not knowingly supply these banned gems.”
The comprehensive nature of the JADE Act, spelled out in lengthy legalese, may appear to be a daunting task when it comes to sorting it all out. But the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC) has streamlined this concern with information clearly spelled out on their website for those interested - www.jvclegal.com.
It’s impossible to prove some stones have been in the US prior to the implementation of the JADE Act, certain dealers worry. Old stock - really old stock - may not have the paper trail that the current legislation demands in order to sell existing stock that may have come from Burma - or not. Proving the origin is a hotly debated topic where this new ban is concerned.
Some people mistakenly believe the determination of origin, not how long it has been in the US, is at least a done deal. Inclusions and fluorescence clues some feel, are fail-safe and will tell if a ruby originated in Burma. Not so fast, warns Christopher Smith, vice president and chief gemologist, of American Gemological Laboratories (AGL).
Burmese rubies are found in three major deposits; the Mogok Valley, Mong Hsu and Namya Zeik. Yes, it’s true that a number of indicators can assist in separating ruby from Burma and ruby from other sources around the world. These indicators are various inclusion and spectroscopic features, internal growth structures, and chemical composition. Still, since there are ruby deposits in other locales whose geologic environs almost mirror that of Burma, in many instances, “distinguishing these sources from Burma ruby can range from straight forward to very difficult.”
Noted ruby and sapphire authority Richard Hughes believes that the statistics involving the sale of Burmese ruby are grossly misleading. “Claims that the junta earns $300 million a year from the sales of gems are based upon gross gem auction proceeds, but in reality many of the lots sold at auction are owned by private parties, not the junta,” Hughes states.
Time will tell whether this law which intends to send a punitive message to the brutal ruling junta of Myanmar achieves its desired effect. No one, as Douglas Hucker, CEO of American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) understands it, wants to see the innocent victims of this legislation become the fall guy to this ban. “My concern,” Hucker stressed, “is that this Bill is going to hurt the wrong people like the artisanal miners, instead of the junta.”
La Pierre Precieuse, Montreal, offers fine Cambodian ruby as an alternative to the banned Burmese ruby.
Photo courtesy of La Pierre Precieuse. Burmese Ruby crystal, courtesy of Will Heierman, www.corunduminium.com.
The ripple effect of the Burmese ban spreads to Thailand, and surrounding nations which traditionally cut these stones. Gem dealer Bill Larson, president of Pala International, spends a great deal of time in Asia. “These are independent (Burmese) miners who supply the Thais; and the dealers all come to Thailand unofficially,” Larsen points out. So he feels that ruby sales do not enrich the Burmese government. “Who it will affect are the thousands of Thais in the cutting and jewelry industry.”
Montreal based gem dealer Pramendra Baid, of La Pierre Precieuse, Inc., sees a closer-ranged unintended consequence. Baid forecasts a flood of Burmese goods having entered the US ahead of the ban enforcement, resulting in an unwanted price hike for Burmese goods. The residual challenge, Baid predicts will be in serving the upper tier of the market. Nothing else quite looks like Burmese ruby, he says. Ruby from other countries lacks the color saturation and clarity as fine Mogok ruby. Baid also foresees difficulties with implementing the new documentation requirements for Canadian based importers and manufacturers who sell to the US because “origination documentation for previously purchased rubies (both Burmese and non-Burmese) will be difficult if not impossible to obtain.”
In the end, all of these well founded concerns are mitigated by the cohesive unity of trade members not wishing to support a government whose human rights abuse records are so abysmal. And the various voices all make their point. JA Director of Public Affairs Donahue affirmed, “Until genuine democratic reform becomes a reality in Burma, such sanctions are necessary to send a clear message from American jewelers to the ruling military regime.”