Tiffany Resumes Buying Gems Mined in Myanmar

February 16, 2005

Tiffany Resumes Buying Gems Mined in Myanmar

Tiffany & Co. has notified its suppliers it will once again purchase ruby, spinel and jadeite mined in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) as long as the suppliers warrant the gems are cut and polished elsewhere, as most are. Tiffany had stopped buying these gems in 2003 after the U.S. government banned import of all products from Myanmar, to protest human rights violations in that country. But in December of 2004, Tiffany received a letter ruling from U.S. Customs & Border Protection, in which the agency held that rubies mined in Myanmar undergo "substantial transformation" when they are cut and polished in other countries and are therefore considered products of the country in which the cutting took place. This makes them exempt from the ban on products from Myanmar.

"Tiffany & Co. took a conservative approach on this issue," says Tiffany spokeswoman Linda Buckley. "We stopped buying when it was unclear if the government considered Burmese gems cut and polished elsewhere to be products of Burma. We asked the government for clarification and it has now responded." Tiffany requires its vendors to not only warrant their gems are cut and polished outside Myanmar, but they must also name the country where the "substantial transformation" takes place.

"Tiffany & Co. has been the conscience of our industry, so this action is important," says Don Kay of Mason-Kay, a leading supplier of fine jade in the U.S. Kay had obtained an opinion from legal counsel almost a year ago, in which his lawyer reviewed prior Customs rulings. He too concluded jade from Myanmar does undergo "substantial transformation" in other countries where it is cut and polished and therefore would not be subject to the U.S. import ban on products from Myanmar.

Brian Leber, Leber Jeweler, Western Springs, IL, has been a vocal supporter of the ban on products from Myanmar. As a retail jeweler, he says Tiffany's action will not affect his decision to refuse purchase of gems mined in Myanmar, regardless of where they are cut and polished. "Our business will continue to refuse to purchase any goods of Burmese origin because we believe it is unethical to do so. 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 as well as runs the gem auctions in Rangoon,"says Leber.

"The fact remains that 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. The jeweler also says country of origin plays a significant role in a gem's pedigree, especially with Burmese 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.'"

Because members of the gem and jewelry trade have sought and received an exemption from the ban on products from Myanmar, it "will only be read as a self-serving act that, when it inevitably enters public debate, will cast a negative shadow on our entire industry," Leber says.

by Peggy Jo Donahue

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