Burmese rubies have become something of a phenonmenon over the years. Their rich, ‘pigeon blood’ hue has made them sought after amidst jewellers, gemstone connousiers and collectors alike. Any jewellery that comes with the Burmese, pigeon-blood tag has been associated with luxury, lump sum sales at auction houses and a matter of pride for both luxury brands who are selling them and people who are buying them. In June this year, a signed Van Cleef & Arpels ring featuring a 3.21-carat Burmese ruby, fetched nearly HKD 3.8 million ($483,288) at the Bonhams Jewels and Jadeite sale. This is just one example of how highly valued a commodity Burmese rubies are – there are several, hundreds of pieces that are being sold by auction houses throughout the year and some of them go on to garnering millions of dollars just because they carry this beautiful, vivid, scarlet-hued gemstone.
Shortly after Global Witness, a nonprofit released a report that released findings on the Burmese ruby industry, Harry Winston decided to not source Burmese rubies for their collections anymore. The report stated that ‘there is no such thing as an ethically sourced Burmese ruby. These gemstones are sold as symbols of human connection and affection, yet the supply chain is steeped in corruption and horrific human rights abuses.’
Harry Winston earlier this week announced in a statement on Twitter, “At Harry Winston, we take the sourcing of our diamonds and gemstones very seriously. We perform our due diligence prior to purchasing, to ensure the gemstones used in the manufacturing of our jewelry collections are obtained responsibly, ethically, and in accordance with all applicablé laws and regulations. In its ongoing commitment to responsible and ethical sourcing, the House of Harry Winston will no longer source gemstones from its suppliers that have Burmese origins, regardless of their important dates.’
Global Witness noted that Rubies sourced from Myanmar are being sold by multinational jewellery companies Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels and Pragnell, high-end auctions houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and mass market retailers Walmart and Intercolor. They are then bought by customers who have no way of knowing whether they are funding atrocities. It also said that ‘For too long, international jewellers, auction houses and mass-market retailers have hidden behind the myth that the issues plaguing Myanmar’s jade industry do not apply to rubies and other gemstones.’
The report also threw light on how tens of thousands of informal miners have filled the void left by the end of official mining, and are being exploited by the military as well as non-state armed groups. Based on a conservative estimate, Myanmar’s ruby industry at full production before licences expired was worth an average of $346 million to $415 million a year. Many of these rubies end up in the multi-billion-dollar gemstone markets of Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York and London. Myanmar is one of the world’s two largest suppliers, and the source of the world’s most valuable stones.
While maintaining ethical standards and sustainability have become hot topics in the world of luxury, the colour gemstone industry is still highly unorganised and fragmented – rare, one-of-a-kind gemstones are sourced in one corner of the world, cut and polished in an another, used in the manufacturing of jewellery by stakeholders in different parts of the world and finally reaches the hands of consumers through retailers globally.
Ethical standards of large pockets of the colour gemstone mining sector are still questionable and the Burmese mining industry is one big example. The report also cautions by stating that ‘Gemfields is a member and that at least three major participating companies, Chopard, Boucheron and Tiffany & Co. source, or have recently sourced, rubies from Gemfields’ mine in Mozambique, where serious human rights abuses have been documented. Mozambique does not offer an ethical alternative to sourcing gemstones from Myanmar, the report stated.
Given how important it is to sell and market jewellery that has ethically sourced raw materials and the direct impact it has on brands, will other brands follow suit in ostracising the Burmese ruby mining industry? They certainly should.