All that glitters: Gemstones, atrocities and alternatives


In the previous post we discussed the impact of diamond mining both socially and environmentally; measures such as the Kimberley Process have been put in place to attempt to protect the market from stones that fund war. Unfortunately coloured stones have often slipped under the radar but are no less unethical. 

Burmese rubies and jade are a classic example; 90% of the world's rubies come from Burma's Mogok Valley. The most highly sought after are the deep "pigeon blood" red stones which come from this area.

For many years we in the trade were told to avoid Burmese rubies and for eight years America banned the import of rubies from Burma after it became clear the process of ruby and jade extraction in Burma was inhumane.

The military government appropriated mines, taking away the livelihood of local residents. Robbed of their means to support themselves, the population, including children, began illegally mining at night, desperately hoping to find enough stones to get themselves over the border with Thailand to a new life free of the threat of rape and murder or imprisonment.

Under military rule a booming trade in the finest quality rubies lined the pockets of the Burmese government, China was the largest customer, buying vast ruby stocks at government run auctions and releasing them for sale on the global market.

The unpleasant truth is the human cost of those rubies; women and children systematically raped, ethnic cleansing, kidnapping of entire villages of men to work as slaves in mines amongst other atrocities.

The atrocities in Burma have been truly terrifying but we see a more encouraging future as Burma moves towards democracy and sanctions are slowly and carefully relaxed. Fresh hope springs under new rule, perhaps now the people will start to benefit from their work in the mines.

As a cautionary note however; Myanmar's military regime still has strong influence over the current ruling party, so it is hard to tell how conditions have really improved. The mines are closely guarded and residents and outsiders only make it in to the valley under the cover of darkness. It seems the recent governmental change although extremely positive, is not the end to the brutal Burmese mining regime. Hopefully the influence of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for many years for challenging the military rule, will finally bring real change.

The jade industry in Burma has a similar history and has strong associations with civil war; child soldiers, rape and enslavement are rife. Not to mention the environmental impact of illegal mine spill causing pollution and landslides. Burmese jade is still thought to directly fund military conflict.

In many countries where there is small scale mining there is little or no regulation of working conditions. Madagascar is known for child labour and abuse in gemstone mines. Small children are used to crawl in to small gaps underground to search for stone deposits. Conditions in mines are dangerous with risk of rock falls, underground fires and collapsing pits, all of which is made worse by scant access to medical care. In the 1980's drug cartels in Columbia fought wars over emeralds, in Cambodia the Pailin sapphires funded the genocide of 1.5 million people, the toll of gemstone mining is vast. 


As with diamond mining, coloured gemstone mining also causes significant environmental damage, ruining eco systems and valuable farmland. Abandoned mines often become rife with disease once the mines fill with stagnating water, though recommendations are now being made to return closed mines back in to farm land but the process is slow.

Cultivated gemstone boules.

Cultivated gemstone boules.

So what are the alternatives? Hargreaves Stockholm chooses to use sapphires that are non mined. As with our diamonds our stones are produced in laboratories in a process that replicates the conditions in which sapphires are created naturally. 

We are open to using responsibly sourced, mined materials if it can be guaranteed that workers are paid fair wages, that no child labour is used, proceeds don't fund conflict and that measures are in place to protect eco systems and populations. As yet, we have not used mined stones and will not use a traditionally mined stone unless we are totally confident in its provenance. 

Gemstones are at the root of some of the world's most hideous atrocities. We need to believe there are alternatives and actually find them. We need to stop ignoring what is happening to people and the planet just because they are in a place we can not imagine. We need to demand stones that benefit those whose hands have dug them from the earth and make sure they have adequate pay, health care and provisions in place to ensure their children can be children without being forced down mine shafts. We all need to take responsibility for our corner of the world, the jewellery industry is no exception. 

Jemima Hargreaves