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More American Jewelry Stores Banning Burmese Gems

The sale of Burmese gems has become the target of a growing boycott following the violent crackdown of pro-democracy protesters in Burma in September. While Burma's ruling military government holds another gem auction, the market for those precious stones is getting smaller. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from New York, more and more jewelry retailers in America are refusing to sell Burmese gems.

The people who mine them call the coloring of these precious stones "pigeon-blood" red.

Thomas Moses, who works for the Gemological Institute of America, or GIA, knows the value and uniqueness of these gems, which come from only one place in the world. "Historically, Burma rubies were one of the most sought after gems in the gem and mineral kingdom," he tells us.

Throughout the years, Moses says, Burma was generally not a major exporter of the precious rubies. That changed in 1991 when a new deposit was discovered in the eastern part of the country. "Burma today is probably the largest producer of commercial quality rubies that are in the marketplace."

A 2003 law bans the sale of Burmese gems in America. But a loophole in the law has kept those gems in the marketplace says Peggy Jo Donahue of the Jewelers of America. "As long as a gem is cut in Thailand, for example, or in India, it is not considered a product anymore of Burma. Technically I guess you could say Burmese gems legally could be here if they were cut and polished in a different place," she says.

The Jewelers of America felt that the loophole did not follow the spirit of the legislation, designed to keep money from the sale of those gems out of the hands of the Burmese military government. They also discovered many jewelers knew little about the ban.

"I spoke to jewelers who never knew of a Burmese ban of any kind,” says Donahue. “Our consciousness was raised as an industry by the events that we saw taking place in August and September, and then the sense that we had that gemstones that we knew came from Burma, therefore we needed to do something about it."

The Jewelers of America now educates its members, encouraging them to support the ban by not selling the gems in their stores.

Tiffany and Company as well as Cartier are two of several major jewelers that have signed on to the effort. First lady Laura Bush, an outspoken critic of the Burmese government, issued a statement last week applauding companies who support the ban.

As more jewelers sign on, demand increases to identify the origin of rubies in the marketplace. It's a service Donna Beaton with the GIA helps provide to customers. "There's a hierarchy of value that has been established in the trade already, so people want to know where it comes from hoping it comes from a premiere source. So in the case of rubies, Burma is a premiere source," says Beaton.

Since the need to verify the origin now goes beyond just the value of the gem, GIA uses the latest technology to leave little doubt as to where a ruby in question comes from.

Wuyi Wang is a Research Project Manager with GIA. He uses high-powered lasers to cut microscopic pieces of a gem, which is then used to determine its chemistry. "You will see some difference between Burmese rubies and rubies from other locations, like from Vietnam for example,” he explains. “There are quite systematic differences, either gemological features including color, inclusions, as well as their chemistry."

GIA expects an even greater demand for its services if further legislation banning the import of gems, regardless of where they were cut or polished, becomes law. That legislation is currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress.