I’ll never forget vacationing in Thailand, trying to decide whether to buy a pair of jadeite earrings. The beaming salesman chanted to me, “Burmeeeese jade,” with a knowing nod. His smile implied that nothing could be better.
Imperial-quality jade. Courtesy of Mason-Kay.
That was about eight years ago, when jade and rubies from Burma (Myanmar) were banned from the United States. Retailers in the U.S. could not sell them. Wholesalers could not import them. Well, that recently changed, and the announcement got me interested in the story of how these gems came to be sanctioned.
It was back in 2003 when George W. Bush signed the trade embargo, prohibiting the import of Burmese goods. The military ruling group, the “junta”, of the country had imprisoned the people’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Citizens of the country were having their human rights violated. The embargo was a response to what was considered an unacceptable way to govern.
But there were loopholes in the 2003 document, and Burmese jade and rubies still found their way into the U.S. If a “middleman” country got involved, either in the cutting or polishing step, it was still legal to import these gems to the U.S. That is, until July 2008.
President Bush signed a new document, the Tom Lantos Block Burmese J.A.D.E.(Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, which closed the loopholes and effectively banned the import of ALL precious Burmese gemstones. Wholesalers and retailers selling ruby and jade needed documentation to certify that the gems had not originated in Burma.
The jewelry industry was negatively impacted by the embargo. Burma was considered the best source in the world for fine ruby and jade. Different sources of the gems had to be found, and, over the years, they were. Today many rubies come from Mozambique. Jadeite sources include Guatemala, Japan, and Kazakhstan.
The trade sanctions had the desired effect. Myanmar began to make reforms in 2010. Over the next couple of years, democratic elections were held and many political prisoners were released. In 2011, the U.S. appointed an ambassador, and, in 2012, President Obama visited the country. Using a cautious approach, President Obama lifted some of the sanctions in November 2012. But the ban on rubies and jade remained in place.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now the nation’s State Counsellor (sort of like a Prime Minister), expressed patience, saying that “We believe that if we are going along the right path, all sanctions should be lifted in good time.” And she was right! On October 7th, 2016, President Obama signed an executive order to lift the remaining trade sanctions against Myanmar.
It will be interesting to see how this executive order influences the jewelry industry in the coming months and years. It will take some time to establish or re-establish relationships with Burmese stone dealers. But I believe it won’t be long before we see the deep blood-red Burmese rubies back in our stores. And my “Burmeeeese” jade earrings (Yes. . . I bought them) may soon be easy to find in the United States.
25.59 carat Burmese Ruby, sold in 2015 for $30.3 million
A large polished piece of Greenstone
In late September I was in Swede’s, the famous light blue jewelry and rock store in the middle of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The feisty woman in charge, 83-year-old Mary Billings, asked me as I walked in–“What is the gemstone of Michigan?”
When I answered, “Isle Royale Greenstone,” she looked at me with new respect.
“You’re only the thirteenth customer this season who has answered that question correctly. And we’ve had a lot of people who’ve walked through that door.” She shook her head, a little disgusted that Michiganders weren’t commonly aware of their state gemstone.
Most people, if they have any idea at all, would probably say Petoskey is the state’s gem. And it IS the state rock. But Isle Royale Greenstone, or just Greenstone, has been Michigan’s official gem since 1973. Found mainly on Isle Royale or the Keweenaw Peninsula, Greenstone has the fancy, scientific name of Chlorastrolite, which is a variety of the mineral Pumpellyite. It’s often found in and around copper mines, which are abundant in the Keweenaw. The mineral makes its home in amygdaloidal basalt. If you’re like me, that phrase holds no meaning. I had to look it up, so I’m happy to share its meaning. Basically it’s a pit or cavity in the stone. So amygdaloidal basalt is cooled and hardened lava with lots of cavities in it that have been filled in with minerals.
Once the Greenstone is removed from its host rock, it can be cut and polished. But it’s a tricky stone to work with because it’s not really hard–only a 5-6 on the Mohs’ Scale– and it can have its own cavities and hollow spots within it. Cutters want to expose the best “turtle-back” pattern that they can and eliminate any bad spots. But removing a top layer of the stone is likely to reveal a different, and not necessarily better pattern. The goal is a clear pattern showing some chatoyancy. The best stones will demonstrate that change in luster as they are tilted back and forth in the light.
Tumbled Greenstone with pink Thomsonite
Greenstone is not a particularly expensive gemstone to buy. Even with the labor involved in finding, mining, and cutting it, there’s just not a huge market for the material. But it isn’t an easy gem to own. Since the year 2000, it’s been illegal to take Isle Royale Greenstone off the island. The island is, after all, a national park. And even Keweenaw Greenstone isn’t easy to get unless you have access to the copper mine areas. Most jewelry stores, even in Michigan, don’t carry Greenstone. So plan on spending some time searching for your perfect piece of Michigan’s gemstone. Whether you spend time looking along the shoreline for a rare small piece of it, or whether you search for jewelry stores that carry the gem, enjoy the journey.
My piece of Keweenaw Greenstone! I love it!!
I never realized there were so many good luck charms until I started working at a jewelry store. Sure, I knew of the 4-leaf clover and the rabbit’s foot, but I’d never heard of the “ankh” and the “cornicello.” One of my more embarrassing moments came recently when a woman came in with her husband’s necklace. It needed repair so I wrote up a repair slip, describing the piece as a “hot pepper pendant on a gold chain.” Everyone laughed at me when I took it back to the shop. “That’s not a hot pepper,” chuckled the bench jeweler. “That’s a gorno.”
The “corno” pendant
“Huh? What’s a gorno?” Well, truth is, he wasn’t completely sure. And the fact is, it’s not a gorno. It’s a corno or a cornicello. Turns out this is the Italian word for “horn” or “little horn.” It apparently protects the wearer from the evil eye. The evil eye is a look, given to inflict harm or bad luck. There is widespread belief in the power of the evil eye, but, supposedly, it started in ancient Greece.
Now, the “evil eye” I’d seen before, a few months back when working with a different customer. It’s kind of confusing, because some people wear an amulet of an eye, as protection from evil. They call the amulet the evil eye. So I guess an “evil eye” can be either bad luck OR good luck.
I think every culture has their own version of a good luck charm. The “ankh”(pronounced awnk) is actually the Egyptian symbol for life. As the key of life, it represents zest and energy, and some people wear it as a protection from demons. It resembles a Christian cross, but has a loop at the top.
The “ankh” pendant
I guess we all can use a little good luck from time to time. Can it hurt to wear a good luck charm? It’s just nice to know there are so many options.