Professional Jeweler Archive: Tiffany to Keep Ban on Myanmar Gems

April 2005

First Run

Tiffany to Keep Ban on Myanmar Gems

Retailer makes decision despite recent U.S. Customs ruling that exempts gems mined in Myanmar but cut elsewhere from a U.S. ban

By Peggy Jo Donahue

Tiffany & Co. announced in March it will continue its moratorium on the purchase of rubies, spinel and jadeite from Myanmar, says Michael Kowalski, chairman and CEO.

This reversed a decision Tiffany made in February to resume buying gemstones mined in Myanmar as long as the suppliers warranted they are cut and polished elsewhere. The February decision followed a December 2004 letter Tiffany received from U.S. Customs & Border Projection saying rubies mined in Myanmar undergo “substantial transformation” when cut and polished in other countries and are considered products of the country in which they are cut. That would exempt them from a ban the U.S. enacted in 2003 on all products from Myanmar because of human rights abuses there.

After further consideration, Tiffany decided not to offer gems from Myanmar. “We believe the right thing to do is continue our moratorium,” says Kowalski. “Despite the Customs ruling, mining of these gems supports the existing regime. We support democratic reforms and an end to human rights abuses in that country. We believe our customers would agree with that position.” Myanmar gems still for sale at Tiffany stores were bought before the ban.

Brian Leber of Leber Jeweler, Western Springs, IL, a supporter of causes in Myanmar, once known as Burma, says he will continue to follow the spirit of the U.S. ban despite the “substantial transformation” loophole. “Our business will continue to refuse to purchase any goods of Burmese origin because we believe it is unethical to do so,” he says. “The same military government that continues to hold Burma’s duly elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest and is guilty of countless human rights abuses also owns a majority share in all Burmese mines and runs the gem auctions in Rangoon.

“The two main grading criteria to determine value for colored gems – color and clarity – are a direct result of geological conditions of the stone’s place of origin and remain unchanged by a third-party country’s cutting,” says Leber. Country of origin plays a significant role in a gem’s pedigree, he says, especially with ruby and sapphire. “In my opinion, any item whose identity is so strongly tied to its source, despite any cutting or refiguring, has not undergone ‘substantial transformation,’” he says.

Tiffany’s decision was hailed by the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a human rights group in Washington, DC. “Tiffany deserves our praise and patronage for making this ethical decision,” says Aung Din, cofounder of USCB, who spent more than four years behind bars as a political prisoner. “We are actively researching to find out if any other jewelers are [buying gems that originate in Burma]. We think their customers will be dismayed to hear about participation in Burma’s ‘blood gems’ business.”

Myanmar’s democracy movement has called on international businesses to shun the country until there is a transition to democracy. Since 2000, companies that have ended ties to Myanmar include Kenneth Cole, Jones New York, Tommy Hilfiger and Federated Department Stores.

Ruby and sapphire are both mined in Myanmar, as are spinel and jadeite.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

Copyright © 2005 by Bond Communications