Burmese Ruby Ban Lifted...Too Soon?

Burmese rubies are back. Is that a good thing?

Thanks to Hollywood portrayals and activist campaigns, many are familiar with the term “blood diamond,” which refers to human-rights abuses and other serious concerns in the diamond-mining industry. 

Fewer people know that U.S. imports of Burmese rubies were banned for years due to similar concerns. And although an executive order signed by President Obama in late 2016 lifted those restrictions, questions remain about whether the sourcing of these gemstones is ethical.

The history of Burmese rubies.

Myanmar, the country formerly (and still commonly) known as Burma, has been a source of rubies for more than 1,500 years, according to the Gemological Institute of America. Burmese rubies, known for their clarity and deep red hue, command premium prices in the marketplace.

However, similar to “blood diamonds,” that beauty historically has come at a steep human price. A 2010 report by the Daily Mail, a UK publication, painted a picture of brutality in the ruby mines of Myanmar, including forced labor and systemic human-rights abuses such as ethnic cleansing and rape. Profits from these gems funded the military junta that controlled the country at the time.

The U.S. first imposed sanctions in 2003 (and strengthened them in 2008) in response to these abuses, preventing the import of rubies, jade and other items from Myanmar in an effort to defund the regime. In 2010, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Myanmar began to gradually liberalize; by 2013 the country had made significant strides toward change with democratically held elections, cease-fire agreements and the freeing of political prisoners. U.S. sanctions were lifted for many items in 2013, although not for rubies and jade, as many mines were still controlled by the military.

The current situation, and Everling’s stance.

Obama noted his concern about continuing human-rights abuses in May of 2016; yet in October, he signed the executive order allowing imports of rubies and jade from Myanmar. It’s hard to imagine that slave labor, child labor, extremely dangerous working conditions, corruption and bribery could be completely eradicated from gem mining over just a few months. Cynics might contend that the U.S. is less concerned with human rights in Myanmar, and more concerned with being left out of this valuable marketplace while other countries continue to profit.

While it appears that Myanmar and its government are continuing to rebuild from decades of suppression and oppression, we still are concerned about current mining practices and conditions, as well as the potential that an influx of money from these gem exports could result in a return to widespread corruption and abuse.

We hope this will be a positive development for the people of Myanmar and the jewelry industry, and will be watching closely as these rubies circulate back into the marketplace. There’s no question that they are of exceptional quality, however, because of Everling’s core commitments, we simply cannot recommend Burmese rubies at this time. We hope that by helping consumers understand the complex issues around gemstone sourcing and production practices, we can move toward more socially and environmentally responsible practices. 

Written by Emily Codling for Everling Jewelry