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How Myanmar "conflict rubies" could end up in your Christmas stocking

By Jackie Mallon

Dec 16, 2021

Handcarfted Sterling Silver Earring with Diamond and Ruby 1008CELEBRATIONS

During the holiday season the gift of jewelry is given as a symbol of love and celebration. Precious stones in exquisite settings are slipped into satin-lined branded boxes, and purchased by well-intentioned consumers to present to their loved ones. Rubies from Myanmar are thought to be the finest in the world but the origin of these gems often involves horrific human rights abuses for people living under a brutal regime.

New findings in a report released today by Global Witness spotlights a supply chain issue that is being largely ignored by many of the luxury market’s most aspirational brands. It underscores the fact that there is no such thing as an ethically sourced Burmese ruby, yet Myanmar (also known as Burma) is one of the world’s two largest ruby suppliers, and the source of the world’s most valuable stones. The current world record holder, an untreated ruby from Myanmar’s Mogok region, sold in 2015 for over 30 million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction, which works out at more the 1 million dollars per carat. 

Infographic from Global Witness report

But the Myanmar gemstone trade is a corrupt military racket run by the country’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of the 2021 coup who faces allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity, the report details. Under his command the military has used the country’s significant gemstone wealth to buy off armed opposition to its rule, violently dispossess local communities and grant ruby mining licenses to ethnic armed groups. While gemstone mining is currently illegal in the country, tens of thousands of informal miners are being exploited by the military so that the lucrative gemstone trade continues. And there is no end of unscrupulous buyers to bankroll the atrocities.  

Report says rubies from top jewelers fund Myanmar conflict and human rights abuses

Myanmar rubies penetrate the multi-billion-dollar gemstone markets of Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York and London to be sold by the top international jewelers such as Bulgari, and Graff among others. An estimated 90 percent of the world’s supply of rubies came from Myanmar until 2009 when Mozambique emerged as a rival supplier. According to the report, some international top brands such as Chopard and Boucheron buy rubies from Mozambique, but mining operations there have also been connected to severe human rights abuses and corruption. The report points out that rubies from Mozambique do not offer an ethical alternative to sourcing gemstones from Myanmar. 

“Luxury brands – like Graff, Harry Winston and Sotheby’s – are burying their heads in the sand and selling rubies that are highly likely to be funding conflict on to unwitting consumers,” reads the report. “Of more than 30 international jewelers, auction houses and mass-market retailers contacted by Global Witness, only three – Tiffany & Co., Signet Jewellers and Boodles – declare publicly that they have stopped sourcing gemstones from Myanmar.”

Infographics from Global Witness report

By the time the rubies reach Thailand, where most of Myanmar’s rubies are processed, Global Witness found that many dealers have no idea which mines they came from and often don’t attempt to find out. Only one dealer, Fai Dee Gems, of the more than 20 that Global Witness spoke to, was able to identify the specific mine from which it had sourced gemstones. This is inconsistent with due diligence expectations set by international supply chain standards applicable to gemstones.

The most significant destination markets for Burmese rubies are China, India and the US, while EU countries, the UAE, Hong Kong and Singapore are also important markets. The report states that “Companies worldwide are hiding behind the complexity of gemstone supply chains, which obscures the origins of stones sold on the global market.” Jewelers selling Burmese gemstones are flouting internationally endorsed frameworks including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN Guiding Principles) and the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas (OECD Guidance).

“The companies that spoke to us, Signet Jewelers, Chopard, Tiffany & Co. and Bulgari, see themselves as industry leaders on responsible sourcing,” reports Global Witness. “Yet two of them – Bulgari and Chopard – would not rule out sourcing rubies from Myanmar, and Bulgari was marketing at least one ruby from Myanmar at the time of our investigation.”

Global Witness is a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated NGO founded in 1993 which campaigns to hold companies and governments accountable for destruction of the environment, disregard for the planet and failure to protect human rights. Some good news has come about since the beginning of its investigation into Myanmar rubies, and perhaps partly as a result of what it unearthed. Harry Winston has changed its position and in a welcome move on 9 December, the company announced that it would no longer source gemstones that have a Burmese origin from its suppliers. FashionUnited contacted Graff and LVMH which owns Bulgari for comment but received none by time of print.

“Jewelry companies must demand transparency from suppliers. It is almost impossible to oversee the supply chain of a Myanmar ruby,” said Clare Hammond, Senior Myanmar Campaigner at Global Witness. “And until they know that they are being sourced responsibly, they must stop selling Myanmar rubies. The fact that a handful of brands have already acted leaves the others with no excuse not to follow suit.”