Thailand Gets Ready to Sparkle

Thailand’s history is rich with gemstones, beginning in the 1400s when its mines first produced the sapphires and rubies that adorned the crowns, swords and even the footwear of the country’s royalty. And as recently as May, jewelry fans took note of the glittering sapphire and diamond necklace and earring set that Queen Suthida of Thailand wore at King Charles III’s coronation in London.

But since the 1970s, Thailand has mostly been known as a global hub for cutting, polishing, heating and trading stones, doing business with its gem-rich neighbors Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, along with countries far beyond.

And after years of pandemic disruption, the organizers of the 68th Bangkok Gems & Jewelry Fair, which was scheduled to open Wednesday and end Sunday, are considering it a chance to reintroduce the world to Thailand’s expertise in processing and perfecting natural gems. Or, as the industry calls these stones, the rough.

The event offers “a lot of opportunities for local businesses to be exposed to overseas buyers,” said Sumed Prasongpongchai, chief executive of the Gem & Jewelry Institute of Thailand (G.I.T.), the division of the Ministry of Commerce that sponsors the show. “We promote the fair heavily in the Middle East, Europe and America.”

And, he noted, “this show provides a platform for networking, not just for the gems and jewelry show, but showcasing for new trends in jewelry. This is one of the first gem shows after Covid, and especially for our buyers in China. There is a big demand for cut gemstones coming from overseas, mostly from America, Europe and Asia.”

The fair, held in the cavernous Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, is expected to draw 30,000 attendees, about half the number of the estimated 60,000 visitors who earlier this year went to the gem shows in Tucson, Ariz., generally considered the world’s largest such gem trade gathering.

Phuket Khunaprapakorn, the chief executive of Gemburi, examining a ruby from Mozambique in his office in Chanthaburi.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Hotels and Cheap Labor

The evolution of Thailand’s gem and jewelry business can be credited not only to its location in gem-rich Southeast Asia, but also to its relatively stable existence in a volatile region.

“Thailand has benefited for decades from the political history of the countries around it,” said Vincent Pardieu, a field gemologist and consultant at VP Consulting in Bahrain, who has lived in Thailand on and off for about 22 years. He explained that many people left what is now Myanmar in the wake of a military coup in 1962, then there was the war in Vietnam, genocide in Cambodia and, very recently, Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“But Thailand was very linked with the Western world and got lots of funding from the United States, Japan and Europe,” he said. “Much of the gem trade moved to Bangkok over the decades, and infrastructure was built, such as hotels, banking and technology.”

In many people’s estimation, that combination of resources has allowed the country to maintain its status in the global gemstone trade.

“You might be cutting small stones in Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Tanzania, but you have no cut-stone buyers who will come to your country,” Mr. Pardieu noted. “You only have buyers interested in rough stone. Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are not going to Madagascar. They’re going to where the nice hotels are.”

Round rubies sourced from Mozambique at the Sung Gems factory in Chanthaburi. Over the years, most mining of colored gemstones has shifted to Africa.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Thailand is ranked as the world’s third largest exporter of colored gemstones, according to the G.I.T., the government agency that officially tracks such numbers.

And, Mr. Prasongpongchai said, the nation’s exports of gems and jewelry (excluding gold) are expected to hit $8.84 billion this year, an increase of some 10 percent over 2022 totals.

“The thing that Thailand really has besides low labor costs is quality cutters,” said Justin K Prim, co-founder with his wife, Victoria Raynaud, of Magus Gems, a gem-cutting business based in Bangkok and France, and the author of “The Secret Teachings of Gemcutting.”

“In India the prices are lower, but the cutting is not good,” he explained. “And the African and Afghan guys are coming to Thailand with rough all the time because it’s easy to get visas. And it’s all so easy to come into this one little neighborhood in Bangkok for one week and get everything done.”

That includes the important process of verifying authenticity at a reputable gemstone lab.

“We have all the major labs here in Bangkok: GemResearch Swisslab, Lotus and G.I.A. are among the well-respected color gemstone labs,” Mr. Prim said, referring to a Gemological Institute of America’s facility. “You can go to one of these labs and have a gemologist test a gemstone for you for a small price. If we were to fly to, say, Sri Lanka, they don’t have any reputable labs, so you’re not sure if you can trust them.”

Samran Raktantikiad, a tour guide, demonstrating techniques at the mine at the Demonstration and Learning Center for Gemstone Jewelry in Chanthaburi.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

At a Crossroads

Southeast Asia has long been the place where traders and jewelers traveled to have gemstones cut and polished. “People come to us and our competitors because Thailand as a culture and a nation has deep roots in manufacturing,” said Chanat Sorakraikitikul of the Pranda Group, a jewelry manufacturer, “and designers and brand names come to us, and we help them develop the product.”

“Thailand used to have many mines, especially in sapphire,” Mr. Sorakraikitikul, the chair of the group’s finance and risk management committee and a son of one of its founders, added. “Something like 80 percent of sapphires that you buy came from Thailand, but not the raw material. But they are being processed here with heat-treating to make them shine, but also polishing or cutting.”

In fact, Chanthaburi, a town about 150 miles southeast of Bangkok, on the Gulf of Thailand, is still known as the City of Gems, a nod to its history of ruby and sapphire mining dating to the 16th century. Steady mining over the past 50 years or so has depleted most of the ruby mines, leading to many closures, but some sapphires are still mined there, including stones in a green shade and the locally prized yellow, or whiskey, sapphires.

Buyers and brokers inspecting gemstones during the weekend gem trading market in Chanthaburi in August.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times
Natural stones displayed in front a gemstone classification poster at Narin Jewelry in Chanthaburi.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Most of the world’s colored gemstones are now mined in Africa, primarily in Mozambique, Kenya, Madagascar and Tanzania. But, according to several jewelry executives and experts, those mining companies are regularly coming to Thailand to sell their African finds.

“There was a time, say 30 years ago, when we would travel to Sri Lanka for blue sapphires or to Madagascar and Burma for rubies,” said Phuket Khunaprapakorn, chief executive of Gemburi, a gem cutting and polishing company in the Chanthaburi area. “But now the big mining companies are coming to Thailand for auctions a couple of times a year. Many buyers are in Thailand, and the Thai government supports this.”

He referred to Gemfields, the British mining and gem marketing company known for its rubies from Mozambique and emeralds from Zambia, and Fura Gems, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which also mines rubies in Mozambique, sapphires from Queensland, Australia, and emeralds from Colombia. Both companies have held auctions in Thailand in the past two years.

“This is very convenient for local buyers, obviously, but also for international buyers who can purchase gemstones at auction and then have access to gem cutting and processing in the same country,” Mr. Khunaprapakorn said.

It is a sentiment echoed by Fura Gems, which holds auctions in Thailand.

“Every year we stage six auctions in the city (two for emeralds, two for rubies and two for Australian sapphires) since most of our clients and gemstone laboratories have operations in Bangkok, which makes everything more convenient and accessible,” Rupak Sen — who is in charge of the company’s rough gemstone sales worldwide — wrote in an email. “The country’s great tradition in the business of trading, cutting, and polishing rough gemstones has become the hub for all these activities.”

Workers shaping rubies sourced from Mozambique at the Sung Gems factory in Chanthaburi. Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Training and Skills

Currently, more than 1 million of Thailand’s almost 72 million people are estimated to work in the gem and jewelry business. And that skilled force, many of whom are graduates of the various gemology schools in Bangkok, is what has kept the industry growing.

“To me, Europe is fading away because you don’t have new cutters coming in and almost no government-sponsored apprenticeships,” said Mr. Prim of Magus Gems, “but Thailand has a lot of cutters, probably hundreds.”

Yet, he added, “The problem in Thailand now is that almost every cutter is over age 40, and I’m not seeing any companies training new cutters. They can’t find young people who want to do an apprenticeship program.”

But for the time being, Thailand, for Mr. Prim, is still the heart of the colored gemstone business.

“There are two different worlds: There are diamonds and color stones, and Thailand is all about the color stones, and it is still a major player,” he said. “I would say the average cutting factory is about 25 employees, but in London there I bet there must be less than 10 colored stone cutters. And all of France must have less than 50. Antwerp is only for diamonds, and Germany is mostly exporting their work.”

Fully processed blue sapphires from Nigeria, sorted by size, at Gemburi in Chanthaburi. Thai artisans pioneered the heat treatment of gems.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

It is a point of view shared by many veterans of the gem trade.

“There are not enough cutters to finish the quantity of rough, and the new generation is not getting into this business because they are not willing to work the long hours,” said Jayesh Patel, an instructor at the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok for 20 years who is now based in Dubai. “I don’t blame the youngsters. Even I have this story in my own family. My own son and daughter are nicely settled abroad with good jobs and are not interested in this business.”

But despite the lack of interest among new generations, Mr. Patel said Thailand is still dominant in the field for now, largely because of the local population’s expertise, and the way that knowledge has been fine-tuned over generations.

“Other countries don’t have the know-how that the Thai people have,” Mr. Patel added. “They are the ones who started the heat treatment of gems. Sri Lanka could be the next challenger, but it is going through a rough time now. And Jaipur, India, is a big color stone center, but they process their roughs in Thailand too. They haven’t really developed the heating process yet.”

While no one is quite sure how heating gems began, with some specialists saying it dates to ancient times, the G.I.T. website describes how the Thai version was created after World War II when a local man in the Chanthaburi region, Sammuang Kaewen, accidentally broke a star sapphire while polishing it. When he attempted to reconnect the pieces using borax and heat, he discovered that the gemstone became more vivid.

Chanthaburi was long a hub for ruby and sapphire mining. Steady mining has led to mine closures, but the city remains a linchpin in the country’s gem trade.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Years later, in 1968, a huge fire in downtown Chanthaburi destroyed a number of gem shops, and many of the salvaged gemstones had also become more brightly colored. From there, Mr. Kaewen, who died in 2021 at age 95, created a high-temperature gas furnace for the process and set in motion a sort of renaissance in gem processing.

“The Thais truly discovered a way to improve gems with heat,” Mr. Pardieu said. “Other countries didn’t have this technology for many years.”

And while Thai artisans have this expertise, their labor is not costly, especially in comparison with the labor of gem cutters in Europe.

“The biggest Thai factory I’ve been in pays their cutters 11,000 Thai baht ($313) a month plus it provides cafeteria lunch and a shuttle service, while master cutters can earn up to 25,000 Thai baht per month,” Mr. Prim said. “But in France, for example, a beginning salary is about 1,700 euros ($1,842) a month and around 2,600 euros for people with five years of experience.”

Also, Thailand gives tax breaks to businesses that employ skilled laborers in the gem and jewelry industry, introduced in 2017 as a way to boost exports, and for years has waived any import tax on diamonds.

“The duty-free importation of diamonds allowed the jewelry industry to prosper because it allowed designers to have a wider scope of creativity,” said Henry Ho, president emeritus of the Jewelry Trade Center, a major hub in central Bangkok for buyers and sellers. “Colored gems and diamonds go hand in hand. They enhance each other.”

And, as the Bangkok Gems & Jewelry Fair opens, the emphasis seems to be on ensuring that bond remains strong.

“It’s all about the fine details, and we have a devotion to our temples and fine detail everywhere,” said Mr. Sorakraikitikul of the Pranda Group. “A lot of things need that nitty-gritty work, and people come to Thailand for that in gems and jewelry.”

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