Professional Jeweler Archive: U.S. Bans Products from Myanmar

September 2003

First Run

U.S. Bans Products from Myanmar

Gems such as sapphire, ruby, peridot and jadeite jade may be affected

President George W. Bush recently signed into law a bill banning the import of any product from Myanmar (formerly Burma) for one year unless Myanmar’s government makes democratic reforms such as free elections. The law, the “Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003,” may affect the gemstone business in the U.S., say jewelry industry leaders. The U.S. officially refers to Myanmar as Burma because it does not recognize the government that has held power since 1989; some in the gemstone industry also refer to the country by its historical name Burma.

The new law puts economic pressure on SLORC, the dictatorial junta ruling Myanmar, to free opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and institute democratic reforms. Suu Kyi was freed from the house arrest imposed on her in 1990 after her party, the National League for Democracy, won elections. But she was jailed again May 30 after government loyalists ambushed her motorcade.

Along with the ban on imports, the law authorizes the president to aid Myanmar democracy activists, freezes the SLORC’s financial assets in U.S. banks and property in the U.S. and widens a visa ban on Myanmar officials.

The U.S. joins an international effort to pressure SLORC. In late July, Japan cut off economic aid and debt relief worth $224 million over the past five years. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has also threatened to remove Myanmar from its organization.

Impact on Gem Trade

Myanmar’s ruby, sapphire, peridot, natural pearl, spinel and jadeite jade often set the standards for the gems. “Certificates detailing Burma as the country of origin, especially in rubies and sapphires, are generally necessary to help sell a gem at a premium,” says Fred Ward, a gem expert and author in Bethesda, MD. “It would be hard to sell a $100,000 ruby without such a report.”

“There will be a huge impact on gem dealers,” predicts Jack Abraham of Precious Gem Resources Inc., New York City. “There is no gem source in the world that can fill this void or satisfy demand in any form or format.” He says this will give dealers in Europe and other regions a competitive advantage over U.S. dealers because prices here will rise significantly.

Some gems, including top qualities of jadeite jade, are unique to Myanmar. Jade importer and expert Don Kay of Mason-Kay Inc., Denver, CO, says he will speak to his congressman. “There will have to be a better definition of ‘banning the importation of any article that is a product of Burma,’ as stated in the bill,” he says. “For example, I buy my jade in China, not in Burma. That is where it is worked and processed. Would the law encompass those products as well? Will it encompass antiquities in jade that once originated in Burma?” Many other Burmese gemstones pass through Thailand, the region’s principal gem-processing center.

“Right now we are in the investigative phase to see exactly what impact the ban is likely to have,” says Douglas Hucker, executive director of the American Gem Trade Association. “Obviously, we do not want to condone or support a government that abuses human rights, but our industry is relatively small in relation to other industries and could be adversely affected.” The International Colored Gemstone Association is also studying potential effects.

“I care very much about Burma,” says Richard Hughes of Pala International, Fallbrook, CA. "I would love to see the regime overthrown for all of the reasons stated in the bill. But my guess is these sanctions will have little effect on the government, whereas they’ll have a largely negative effect on the people they are designed to help.”

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

Sapphires and rubies are among Myanmar’s best-known gemstones and are often the standard by which gems from other localities are compared.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

Copyright © 2003 by Bond Communications