Thailand is one of the world’s leading gem and jewelry exporters in the world. With its long history of skilled craftspeople, precise stone cutting, low labour costs, proximity to major coloured gemstone producing countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India and high standards, Thailand has emerged as a major international player in the world jewelry arena.
jewelry is the 7th most important export industry in the country and although there aren’t newer statistics, in the late nineties, they registered sales of US $1.5 billion. In fact, their annual jewelry fair has now surpassed Hong Kong’s similar one as the best gems and jewelry show in the region.
Wholesale jewellers as well as retail merchants are often located on upper floors of large buildings. Knowing where to go is as important as knowing to whom to give your business.
Orange sapphires (corundum) are not known to many consumers but in a high rise, after going through a rear entrance, the largest collection to be seen in Bangkok is at Pornchai International. Natural Orange sapphires are one of the rare natural gemstones discovered by a group of five Thai stone dealers and stone cutters in the late nineties.
Pornchai Chuenchomlada, the President of Pornchai International, the largest wholesaler of these stones, is also the president of Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association and The Orange Sapphire Club. Chuenchomlada, always smiling, tells me that the raw material comes from the mines in Ilkaka-Sakaraha (Madagascar) and Tanzania’s Songea mine. “Orange sapphire’s hardness is 9, the same level as corundum,” he states. He does cite that these mines don’t produce many large stones any longer, mostly now are smaller stones.
The Orange sapphires are undeniably beautiful, bright colored and considered precious stones. In 2001, Thailand was the only country to export these wonderfully vibrant stones to international markets such as Asia, Japan, USA and Europe.
Chuenchomlada is insistent that I see the variety of his cache and goes behind his office to a large vault from where he brings out trays of loose stones of various sizes and colours. The stones come in four vivid shades of orange from pinkish orange (Padparacha), reddish orange (ruby), pure orange (orange sapphire) to yellowish orange (King sapphire) The most expensive are the deepest orange. There are a few which Chuenchomlada points out that are very clean, without fault. He’s particularly proud of a precious and very serious10 carat, almost red stone A good quality stone wholesales for about US$5,000 per carat.
Just a few are cut in his premises. It was his decision to have them cut elsewhere and selling wholesale seems to have worked for him. To show the advantages of these rare stones, there are a few rings and pendants which were designed and made up as samples for buyers who, at this point, are mainly Japanese. His emphasis is with loose stones.
“I am the king of orange sapphires,” says the slim man, who seems to enjoy his unique position. “I have the largest stock in the world. It’s a power colour. It’s like the sun. I don’t want to sell out. I love them. And in the 42 years I have never seen stones more beautiful.”
However, blue, yellow, black star and lavender sapphires are also part of his wares and although black diamond are down in price, the King of Orange feels all sapphires have a beauty of their own..
Tel 02 234 9988
1191 New Road, Bangkok 10500
In another part of the city, in a modern, mainly glass building is the family-owned, Beauty Gems Group. Founded in 1964, they are an award winning gem and jewelry manufacturer which has grown from a small business to a global firm.
At the lobby entrance I’m met by the assistant to the chairman who seems to want to vet me before introducing me to Pornsit Sciorathaikul. I pass muster and I’m taken up to the chairman’s offices. Before me, in several glass display cases, are some extremely large precious stones set in neckpieces, matching earrings and bracelets, some cabochon, others faceted.
The charming, ver
y elegant man in a bespoke suit, talks about his family’s involvement in the industry. Known for their high standards of quality and superior craftsmanship, Beauty Gems’ reputation is known in all international trade associations
“As you know in Thailand we are the country of coloured semi-precious stones, so we focus on them,” says Sriorathaikul. “They have become important to the market. We use semi-precious since it’s more fascinating for me and we could offer so many colours without too much expense. We have so many shades to work with and design”.
At the end of the spectrum, Beauty Gems is noted for their glamourous gems in the high end market. Big stores, however, wanted semi precious since their clientele wanted ‘real’ jewelry. The turn around to semi precious stones gave the stores the quantity and gave the consumer more impact.
“The consumer can have larger pieces,” he states.
As for the colour of choice, now, it’s blue. It’s the fantasy colour, he says referring to topaz, tourmaline, aquamarine now in great demand.
“Even though diamonds have become very important throughout the world and to our business, we still promote colour especially rubies.” For the first time, uniting with the Japanese market, Beauty Gems are features rubies as ‘stand out’ items. These stones come from Myanmar, Thailand, Africa, Cambodia and Australia.
“We sell loose but also set stones. We integrate everything.” Asked about exporting, Sriorathaikul states, “as a matter of fact our business is 95% export mainly to the USA and Asian countries. We hope to expand to Eastern Europe and Russia.”
Although their factory has state-of-the-art equipment, considered among the most advanced jewelry manufacturing plants in Asia, Beauty Gems makes a point of ‘being in touch with the traditions inherent in crafting fine jewelry.”
Flaming red rubies in Bangkok
The high skilled craftspeople create designs for both mass market as well as high end custom pieces. The one stop subcontractor, as they see themselves, does the sourcing of stones, designs and manufactures with their staff of 3,000 experts. They are the largest exporter in Asia in this sector.
Another and more recent addition to their business, are diamonds. Seeing the demand for custom cut diamonds in 1989/90 they founded Royal Diamond Polishing Works and Royal Diamond Cutting Co., Ltd. which provide top quality cut diamonds, round shape still the most popular. Beauty Gems of USA. Co.Ltd, was founded in the early 90s. “We consume about 40 kilos a year,” he says stating that he was visited by one of the native directors of a new Canadian diamond mine. However, his own favourite stone is sapphire “but I make money with rubies.”
After four generations in the business, which started with his grandfather and now he proudly states, his son’s involvement, he says that each company had different names that they have kept. All companies still exist and all are located in the large 15 year old building. The modern factory is located elsewhere in Bangkok.
Although most of the business is wholesale and manufacturing, they do sell retail.
31 Saladaeng Road, Silom
Bangkok 10500 Thailand
Showrooms for Beauty Gems
946 Rama IV Road, Silom
1240-1242 New Road, Bangkok 10500
Another showroom, also in high-rise that I visited in Bangkok, is strictly retail boutique. The locals know about Yves Bernardeau, the French born proprietor of Yves Joaillier, who has a great following worldwide. It’s a smallish space about 350 square feet, but the traffic is enviable. Almost every item for sale is in the cases which surround the room. Each piece is made by hand and is exclusive in the sense that there are no traditional designs. These items are made for the modern woman who isn’t interested in the great big bauble surrounded by diamonds.
“We’re selling more coloured stones, more precious stones these days.” Says Yves, who goes by his first name. “But there are definitely two directions. One is the pastel colours and another are the neutrals like moonstones, smoky and white. Design wise I see more creativity than ever before. For me, the most important are designs people can wear without thinking too much and put it on in the morning and still be able to wear it out in the evening- something easy to wear.”
As for gold , Yves certainly has a great variety of link chains which are hand made but his preference and his variety are mostly with stones. “And as you know, Bangkok is a cutting centre of stones so they are easily available even though they come from Africa and South America,” he says in a very French accented English.
Although he has exported his designs to the US for the past 15 years, he is firm about no revealing the US retailers.
This sophisticated collection has overseas clients returning to visit Yves Joaillier whenever they’re in the country to add to their collection which could be said to be collector’s items.
Charn Issara Tower, 3rd Floor
Tel 02 2333292
942/83 Rama IV Road
Perhaps the most unusual and imaginative jewelry is from Lotus, Arts de Vivre. It’s hardly a mom and pop business but about 20 years ago, Thai housewife Helen von Bueren, put her energy to designing jewelry. Not too long afterwards, with the growth of her business, with husband Rolf, opened their first shop in Bangkok’s The Regent Hotel. Now, Lotus, Arts de Vivre has 14 stores (all resembling a traditional Thai house even though located in hotels) in 7 different countries. Keeping with the original idea of a family business, son Sri now sources artifacts and raw materials while the youngest son, Nicki, manages the marketing department
Although Lotus has expanded their collection to include homeware and cashmere and leather accessories, their forte is definitely jewelry with a difference. Their
Special diamond neckpiece
roster of clients include Princess Michael of Kent, The Rajmata of Jaipur, The Queen of Spain, Sonia Gandhi, the late Rudolf Nureyev, Roman Polanski, Elizabeth Taylor, Goldie Hawn, Shirley Bassey, Sharon Stone and Malaysian Royalty.
Each item is labour intensive and can take up to a year to complete hence the immediate reaction of many consumers is that these are very costly piece of jewelry. However, on closer inspection, it’s easy to understand the pricey-ness with the intricate workmanship and creativity involved plus the use of very unusual, often difficult to find materials.
The bustling studio is located in downtown Bangkok and this is where the imaginative models are assembled.
The cutting edge designs include black diamonds and rubies in the shape of a twisted snake curving around a black ebony wood ring. Or 22 karat gold beads with bubble texture and matching earrings. Wood bracelets again with lizards or geckos incrusted with a wide variety of gemstones. Also, a serpentine bangle on carved black wood topped with gems, a limited edition of a brooch with scarab wings spread out with full cut diamonds, pearls, tourmalines. Others include bamboo, seashells and coconut.
The biggest hurdle now is keep their once top clientele from Japan whose economy has dwindled. New clients are usually accustomed to mass-produced products that rarely break and it’s become a difficult talking point to explain handmade fragile articles.
“The world is becoming less accepting and understanding of this kind of workmanship and expression of creativity. They are accustomed to handling products that have been mass produced in an industrial type environment.” This accounts for the ever present question. ‘why is it so expensive?. But the von Bueren family needn’t worry since their items are in a class of their own.
The Oriental Hotel, Bangkok
48 Soi 40 Charoenkrung Rd.
Tel 66 02235 1875
Also available at the arcade at Sukahthai Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel. In Phuket at the Amanpuri Hotel. In Cambodia, The Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Sien Riep. Also in select hotels in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore.