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 Winner, 1996


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I don't normally mix politics and jewelry, but sometimes the worlds collide with a smash.  You've probably seen the film Blood Diamond, or read enough reviews to feel that you did, but most people don't realize an even worse situation exists with respect to rubies.  It's particularly worth considering now, because more ruby jewelry is purchased at the holiday season than at any other time of year.


Only 15 percent of diamonds, at most, originated in conflict zones while the African wars were on. By contrast, more than 90 percent of all rubies, including the best, come from Burma (aka Myanmar) and its brutal rulers control licensing of mining operations, hold a majority share in every mine and even run the huge gemstone auctions staged twice yearly. 

Beyond directly enriching those who oppress the Burmese people, the gems are produced under such cruel conditions that employers keep their miners, mainly kids, by addicting them to heroin, offered after each long day’s work. And they’re literally worked to death, because needles are shared and HIV infection is rife. “Young people go off to the mines with big hopes and dreams and they come home to die,” as Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma put it.

So just about every ruby mined in the world since 1964, when the generals took charge of Burma, is dripping blood and should be viewed as “an object of revulsion,” to quote Illinois jeweler Brian Leber, America’s leading agitator for sanctions against them.  Thanks to Leber, who founded the Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project, and the industry association Jewelers of America, there may soon be national legislation with teeth to keep these stones out of American stores, but the bill is only in committee now.  Until we're protected by its passage, the only way to avoid blood rubies is by making sure they're pre-1964 vintage or certified non-Burmese.


As a reader of this newsletter, you're most likely a collector of antique and vintage jewelry, which means you can congratulate yourself not only for good taste, but also for protecting our environment from the burdens of additional mining and manufacturing.

Those impacts are considerable.  Producing just enough gold for one ring, for instance, generates 20 tons of mine waste, much of which is highly dangerous, capable of poisoning water sources and land for thousands of years.  Metals mining is actually the worst toxic polluter in the US, responsible for release of 89% of arsenic, 85% of mercury and 84% of lead, according to 2004 statistics.  Even cyanide is part of this witches' brew.

Additionally, mining uses about a tenth of the world's energy and opens a Pandora's Box of human rights woes, such as depriving indigenous people of their homes and livelihoods from farming, which often forces them into slave-like work, as in Burma.  If you're interested in learning more about these matters, useful websites include No Dirty Gold, Earthworks and Brilliant Earth.

Of course all of this happened in the past, as well, but there's satisfaction in making choices that don't extend the damage into the future, while also rewarding us with jewels of greater grace, rarity and quality.