THEY have decorated the headdresses of maharajas, the bellies of courtesans and the fingers of the world's affluent. The rubies of the Mogok valley in upper Burma are cherished for their clarity, quality and the lush red hue known as "pigeon's blood". Yet, as the trade funnels millions of pounds each year into the coffers of the military junta, campaigners now argue the rubies are red with the blood of the people.
While Leonardo Di Caprio and Hollywood have helped educate the public about "blood diamonds" - gems mined in war zones and sold secretly to finance insurgency or a warlord's army - there is a growing demand to have the precious stones of Burma rebranded as "blood rubies" and subject to the same boycott.
In light of the Saffron revolution led by Buddhist monks and the subsequent violent crackdown on the democratic movement by the military government, pressure groups outside Burma are critical of a trade they insist is built on the back of oppression and abuse. "It's said 95 per cent of all rubies come from Burma, so if you see a ruby in a shop, it's gone through the hands of the Burmese generals and is helping to pay for the soldiers and guns on the streets of Rangoon," Mark Farmaner, the acting director of Burma Campaign UK, said.
Debbie Stothard, of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, said conditions in the country's mining operations were horrendous, with owners hooking employees on drugs to improve productivity, and where shared needles are common and AIDS rife.
She said: "Heroin is given to people at the end of the working day as a reward. Young people go off to the mines with big hopes and dreams, and they come back to die. These rubies are red with the blood of young people."
Burma's generals are estimated to have earned about 400 million since they began holding official gem and jade sales in 1964. A far bigger number of precious stones are smuggled over the border into Thailand and China. The official expositions, held twice a year in the tropical heat of Rangoon, are still increasingly popular. More Chinese bidders are attending, attracted by slabs of jade.
Last week, the European Union said it would consider a trade ban on Burmese gemstones, but for the moment there are no such restrictions. However, there is evidence of growing doubt about the morality of trading in such precious stones.
Eric Smith, the co-owner, with his wife, of Eric N Smith, a jeweller in Glasgow, said he was seeking a Burmese ruby for a client who had been insistent on its point of origin.
"Burmese ruby is considered the finest in the world," he said. "Each year, I travel to Bangkok and buy from small family traders who risk their lives to come over the border and sometimes have only two or three stones. The question is, do you cut off them and their families? It's difficult. Until now, no-one has bothered about Burma. It was known to be a topsy-turvy country, but in recent weeks, the conditions have been brought home to us. When I return in February, I will be having second thoughts about what to buy. It is a moral concern."
The ruby market in Britain is exceedingly small, with experts estimating it at no more than 1 or 2 per cent of a 3 billion jewellery business dominated by gold and diamonds. Jack Ogden, the chief executive of the Gemological Association of Great Britain, said: "It has always been said that Burma accounts for 90 per cent of the world's ruby, but this is taken from old text books of the 1930s. Now it can come from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Cambodia and Madagascar."
The Mogok valley is the traditional home of Burma's ruby mining. One recent visitor was Ted Themelis, a geological consultant, and author of Gems & Mines of Mogok, an in-depth study of the region.
Mr Themelis, who is based in Thailand, told The Scotsman the situation there was far more complex than the image presented by protesters. He insisted that, under a deal thrashed out with the military government, former insurgents among Burma's large minority ethnic groups, such as the Shan, Lisu, Palaung and Karen, were given concessions over the gem mines, with 50 per cent of the proceeds going to the government. In November 2003, there were 1,250 licensed mine work sites, while in 1999 there were 850 different registered companies. As there is little mechanisation in the area, the panning, tunnelling and digging of pits is performed by hand, with children as young as 12 taking part. There are about 35,000 miners in the area, who live in camps and earn commission on their finds.
"The work is difficult, but it's not so bad," Mr Themelis said. "What else are they going to do? Grow poppies? At least this is positive. I don't agree with a boycott - the only people this will effect will be the workers. The generals in charge will just find a way around it."
Yet Philip Dundas, of the Scottish-based Burma Educational Scholarship Trust, insisted the situation was far more serious. "Burma has a long history of using forced labour, of getting people addicted to drugs so they cannot leave, and I find it hard to believe that this is not the case in the gem mines," he said.
In Thailand, where the majority of Burma's gems are bought and sold, the stone merchants have yet to be put off doing business with the junta. Pornchai Chuenchomlada, president of the Thai Gem and Jewellery Traders Association, said: "People are unhappy about what's going on, but they are not angry enough to stop buying rubies. If they killed a lot of people like they did in 1988, we might consider banning their products."
The ripples of concern among a few British jewellers, such as Eric Smith, have not yet generated a tide demanding change, according to Geoff Field, chief executive of the British Jewellers Association.
He said he had not been contacted by any members wishing to discuss Burmese rubies, and added: "There has been discussion in chat rooms among members who say they wish to continue to support the small self-employed traders they have been dealing with for years."
In the valley of Mogok, the rains still fall and the mines are largely silent, but in November, when the clouds pass, they will again echo to the sound of hammer and chisel and the scraping of dirt. In literature, the ruby has often been used as symbol of virginity, but in Burma, nothing about the gem business is pure. As Philip Dundas said: "At what price do we wear beautiful things?"
Mogok valley's gems highly prized for their purity and hue
A RUBY is a variety of the mineral rock called corundum, also known as aluminium oxide. The colour comes from chromium.
The mining of Burmese rubies stretches back thousands of years and has traditionally been centred on the Mogok area about 200km north of Mandalay, which is known as the "valley of the rubies".
The crimson stones have been dug from the ground at Mogok since prehistoric times and were previously a source of wealth for Britain during the age of Empire.
Mogok's rubies occur in marble. Millions of years of weathering has freed the stones, washing them down from the hills to the valley floors, where they have settled in the bottom of the streams and rivers.
They are freed from the gravel by panning, tunnelling and digging by hand. There is little mechanisation of the mining.
The gems from Mogok are prized for their purity and hue. The Burmese word for ruby is padamya which translates as "plenty of mercury".
The Burmese call their gems "pigeon's blood ruby" because of the deep red-magenta hue which is similar to freshly drawn arterial pigeon blood. The colour is also often compared to the hue of a pomegranate seed.
They are sold in markets in Mogok; however, foreigners require special permits to visit the town, and the purchase or export of gems at non-government licensed dealers is illegal.
Traders say a ban on Burmese rubies introduced in the US three years ago has been widely ignored and that the rare gems are more sought after than ever.
Last year, an 8.62 carat Burmese ruby fetched a record price of $3.7 million when it was auctioned by Christie's.