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Tiffany Says No to Burma's "Blood Gems"

Published by MAC on 2005-03-08

Tiffany Says No to Burma's "Blood Gems"

US Campaign for Burma Press Release

March 8th, 2005

Contact: Jeremy Woodrum (202) 223-0300

Activists Hail "Principled Position" of World's Most Famous Jeweler, Call for Americans to Boycott Companies Selling Burmese Gems

(Washington, DC) The US Campaign for Burma (USCB) today hailed a decision by leading jeweler Tiffany's to refuse to sell jewels mined in the Southeast Asian country of Burma. The move comes just three months before the 60th birthday of the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, who has called on companies around the world to refuse business with Burma.

"Tiffany's deserves our praise and patronage for making this ethical decision," said Aung Din, co-founder of USCB who spent over 4 years behind bars as a political prisoner. "Mining in Burma supports the ruling dictators while bleeding the Burmese people, which is why no one should buy these 'blood gems.'"

The decision comes just days after Tiffany's had indicated it might resume buying goods from Burma. In a statement sent to US Campaign for Burma on March 5th, in which Tiffany's pledged to not sell rubies from Burma, Tiffany's Chairman and CEO Michael Kowalski said, "We support democratic reforms and an end to human rights abuses in that country. We believe our customers would agree with that position." Tiffany's subsequently confirmed that the ban extends to products mined in Burma, including jadeite and spinel.

The export of jewels--specifically rubies and jade--is a major money-maker for Than Shwe's ruling military dictatorship. The brutal and unforgiving conditions in Burma's mines have also created an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma. Dr. Chris Beyrer, head of the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Fogarty AIDS International Training & Research Program states that the relationship between gem mining and HIV/AIDS in Burma couldn't be more direct: "Gem mining, overseen by Burma's regime and its cronies, has created a cauldron of HIV/AIDS in Burma. The two are completely intertwined, and that is why I would never buy a gem from Burma."

Additionally, many elements of the mining industry are controlled by known drug traffickers. On January 24th, the Department of Justice indicted eight members of the United Wa State Army, which it called, one of the "largest heroin producing and trafficking organizations in the world." The indictment included the identification of several businesses used to launder narcotics money from Burma, including Hong Pang Gems and Jewelry Ltd.

Burma's democracy movement, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has called on international businesses to shun Burma until there is a transition to freedom and democracy in the country. Since 2000, over 40 companies have ended ties to the country, including Kenneth Cole, Jones New York, Tommy Hilfiger, and Federated Department Stores. When Macy's cut ties to Burma, it cited rampant corruption, adding it "was unwilling to make payments that could violate the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars US companies from making unofficial payments to foreign officials".

Adds Aung Din, "We are actively researching to find out if any other jewelers are importing from Burma. We think their customers will be dismayed to hear about participation in Burma's 'blood gems' business."

As Suu Kyi's 60th birthday nears, a growing chorus of international luminaries are calling for her release. In October of 2004, 27 musicians, including Paul McCartney, R.E.M., U2, Coldplay, Bonnie Raitt, Damien Rice, Ani DiFranco, Matchbox Twenty, and others donated songs to a two-CD set dedicated to raising awareness of Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle. Yesterday, the United Nations added to a growing chorus of voices calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release by announcing it would give an award to Suu Kyi on March 8th, International Women's Day. US Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice has called Burma an "outpost of tyranny".

Tiffany Resumes Buying Gems Mined in Myanmar

Professional Jeweler, by Peggy Jo Donahue

February 16, 2005

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.

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