Thailand is known worldwide for its gem and jewelry industry, and there is even a bi-annual Bangkok exposition that attracts thousands from around the world to prove it. Yet gem-buying in Thailand, as is elsewhere, is anything but simple. Lookeast Magazine asks and answers your most pressing questions about what you should know before making any gem or jewelry purchase in Thailand.
There are two principal reasons why Thailand has become internationally renowned for its gem market. The first is the advanced development of Thai technology in the field of cutting the stones away from rough rock. Thailand’s gem science, which is among the very best in the industry, uses precision techniques to carefully cut away the rough so that the stone achieves maximum sparkle and beauty.
There are certainly other countries that invest in gemstone production but Thai artisans are particularly skilled in producing quality stone. This craftsmanship has to do with the system of apprenticeship: cutters begin working in factories at ages as young as 15. Life revolves around the production of cut gems for these workers, beginning by learning the cleaning and polishing techniques, and later entering into the more advanced secrets of the business.
The second reason has to do with the heat treatment of gemstones. “Mong Hsu” rubies, for example, are heated to remove their characteristic blue core. The art of treating stones with heat is extraordinarily expensive to learn and practice, and the secrets are extremely well guarded within families involved in the business.
The reason? Imagine treating a single stone potentially worth upwards of US$100,000. To get the temperature wrong would render it completely worthless. The technique is delicate, and thus localized to certain families who have carried the knowledge through generations.
Where are gems mined in Thailand?
The big name here is Chanthaburi, in the southeastern corner of the country. It borders on Cambodia’s Pailin region, which is well-known for high-quality rubies and sapphires. Mining also occurs in Kanchanaburi in the west and Phrae in the north. However, trends have shifted over the past few decades, and Thailand now imports far more rough gems than it exports. Most gems in Thailand today have originally come from Burma, Madagascar, Cambodia, East Africa, and even as far away as Australia. Thailand’s role has much more to do with processing the gems into a cut, treated, and polished state.
Where are gems processed in Thailand?
Again, Chanthaburi is the name to remember – it is the No. 1 place in Thailand to get gems that have been cut into facets at wholesale prices. This market was born along with the extensive ruby and sapphire mining that used to take place there. These mines have been on the decline since the 1970’s, however, due to depletion of corundum bearing sources.
Corundum is aluminum oxide in a crystalline form including traces of iron, titanium and chromium. It is a rock-forming mineral. The color of the resulting rock depends on which kind of impurities are present; if the rock is red, it is a ruby, while all over variations are known as sapphire. As technology increased, so did efficiency at extracting the rare minerals from the earth, and they were soon exhausted. However, the increase in technology meant that Chanthaburi became a hub for cutting and processing, even if the stones were imported from elsewhere. It remains a burgeoning market for quality stones, in particular the ruby and the sapphire.
Where can you buy gems in Bangkok?
Although Chanthaburi is renowned as the best location in the country for wholesale gem purchases, the casual jewelry shopper has an enormous range of options available within the wild streets of Thailand’s capital as well. The Jewelry Trade Center, located on Silom Road, is an excellent place to begin the hunt; it holds the honor of being the largest center in Bangkok for selling, sourcing, and distributing all variety of jewelry.
It is a staggering 56 floors high, housing over 150,000sqm, much of which is dedicated to the gem business. The building is home to an International Gem and Diamond Bourse, one of the largest in Asia, with a completely computerized trading area that provides real-time information about inventory. Also in the building is a fully equipped gem-testing laboratory, operated by the esteemed Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS).
For those looking to try somewhere away from the skyscrapers, the entire zone between the Silom and Suriwong roads is an excellent area for scores of smaller gem shops. Over one thousand distinct companies deal with gems and jewelry in this area.
The gem shop dealers have likely invested a great deal of capital in their location, and they will not take the risk of losing their investment by getting caught selling fakes. However, everyone is out to make a profit — and vendors may try to sell you gems at a price many times what they are actually worth.
What should savvy buyer do?
One of the trickiest parts of buying gems or jewelry is the huge difference in what the buyer and seller know. It’s highly likely that the vendor is well-versed in the specialized, technical knowledge that goes hand-in-hand with the art of gem appraisal.
It is also just as likely that the average buyer is completely unfamiliar with even the terminology needed to talk about it. Do you need to become a licensed gemologist before even contemplating that glittering ruby ring calling your name?
Imitation vs. Synthetic
The words “imitation” and “synthetic” are tossed around a great deal in the gemological world, but the two terms are in no way equivalent. What’s the difference?
IMITATION – A stone sold to you under the guise that it is something else — for example, a garnet sold as a sapphire. The chemical composition of the gem is not what you are told it is by the dealer.
SYNTHETIC – A stone produced under man-made conditions with chemical composition equivalent to its natural form. There is a wide variety of treatments that stones may pass through that alter them so that they are structurally equivalent to the same naturally occurring stone. Synthetics are not fakes, but any treatment a gem has gone through should be disclosed at the time of purchase.
The key for the everyday buyer looking for precious stones is not going to be an informational advantage, then, but rather a strategic approach.
Of great importance is the ability to take ample time in considering any purchase. Cons tend to happen quickly; anyone trying to pull the wool over your eyes will want it over and done with before you have time to notice anything wrong. Approach every gem-buying excursion with leisure and patience. This should pay off in terms of a highly honed intuition that allows you differentiate those who would hoodwink you from those offering the real deal.
Another crucial element is doubt. You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth hearing again: if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. The “Thailand Gem Scam” is famous enough to be included in nearly every guidebook these days; do not let yourself fall into traps, no matter how saccharine.
Thailand Gem Scam
The infamous con is said to have been around for over 20 years. Its persistence is owed to its complexity; anyone caught unaware could easily be taken for a ride. Here’s one variation of how it goes down:
- A well-dressed man approaches you near a popular tourist spot (for example, the Grand Palace, Wat Po, Siam Square, Khao Sarn, etc.) and informs you that the place you are about to visit is closed due to a made-up Thai holiday.
- He will offer the alternative of going in a tuk-tuk to other nearby points of interest at an extremely cheap price.
- The tuk-tuk takes you to a secluded temple somewhere else in the city, where you meet another well-dressed man praying inside. He tells you about a governmental scheme that currently allows tourists to buy duty free jewelry, which means a high profit margin upon return to the home country.
- The tuk-tuk may take you to another temple, where the story is recounted by yet another seemingly respectable source, building up your confidence through “independent” verification.
- The tuk-tuk takes you to a gem shop where you are pressured to buy jewelry. If you do, it is shipped directly to your address in your home country, which removes any opportunity for outside appraisal.
- You return home with a much lighter wallet to find nearly worthless gems on your doorstep.
If you’ve made any purchase at a Thailand market before, then you know that the name of the game is bargaining. More than a merely acceptable practice, it is absolutely expected, so put your bartering shoes on and get to negotiating. You should also be completely ready to walk away if the terms aren’t what you’re looking for. Never feel obligated to buy a piece if you aren’t satisfied.
As with most products, you can achieve much better deals if you buy in lots rather than individual stones, since it demonstrates serious interest — so group your purchases, and you should be able to haggle with the best of them.
If you’ve made any purchase at a Thailand market before, then you know the name of the game is bargaining. More than a merely acceptable practice, it is absolutely expected, so put your bartering shoes on and get to negotiating.
MAKER MENDS (THAILAND)
Maker Mends (Thailand) is a leading manufacturer of ne custom, made-to-order jewelry. Located at 56/3 Soi Sukhapiban 2 Soi 31, Gemopolis, Praves District, Bangkok, Maker Mends specializes in bridal jewelry and dress rings, as well as in international jewelry repair and restoration service. The company is one of the most trusted jewelry manufacturers in town and its products can be found in
some of the most prestigious shops and owners around the world. For more information, contact 02 727 0733-4, or check out their website at www.mmthailandjewelry.com.
DER MOND (THAILAND)
Established in 1992, Der Mond is a Thai leading jewelry brand with a vision is to create state-of-art jewelry using delicate techniques and the finest selection of diamonds. Der Mond specializes in delicately designed fine jewelry, created using three considerations: harmony in design, the dedicated craftsmanship, and high quality diamond. With in-house production that starts from creative ideas fine-tuned to become delicate art-craft fine diamond jewelry that lasts forever, Der Mond lives up to its motto: “A true quality of Diamond in DESIGN with DEVOTION.”
Siam Paragon, 1st. Floor north zone/ Tel: 02 129 4355-7/ www.dermond.co.th