The Art of Handcrafting in Thailand’s Gem and Jewelry Industry
“Beautiful gems at affordable prices are possible when supported by topnotch research, cutting-edge technologies, and standard verification.”
Diamond rings, pearl necklaces, and different types of gleaming colored gemstone jewelry can look so enchanting and magical in the decorated glass boxes that it is impossible to think about where they come from and who make them. It is as if these gem and jewelry are just born out of nowhere, with all their beauty intact. However, in the world where sustainability becomes a critical issue, ethical consumption can be achieved in part by knowing the journey of the product you are buying. Even more so, the appreciation for the sweats shed in the process may even increase the value of the product itself.
Source: The 64th Bangkok Gems & Jewelry Fair
Thailand is a small country in the world of business, but when it comes to producing these lustrous objects, the country is a hidden gem. They pride themselves over the long history of uniquely handcrafted artisans found everywhere from temples to theatres. Similarly, their distinguishing aspect in the gem and jewelry industry is the incomparable level of expertise in processing rough colored gemstones. The skill is supported by cutting-edge technologies that provide standards and knowledge. In addition, The Gem and Jewelry Institute of Thailand, or GIT, has been promoting sustainability in the country’s gem and jewelry ecosystem via various means. Together, this results in high quality products with competitive prices from transparent sources.
In order to learn what makes this country’s gem and jewelry industry so unique, a look behind the curtain will certainly be illuminating.
The One-of-a-Kind Crafting Skills
Gemstones are usually perceived as something inherently valuable in their purest forms. In reality, most stones would be worthless if it was not for the craftspeople who, with their unique skills accumulated through years of experiment and experience, turn those stones into beautiful gems. This means that the way they are processed can tremendously change their value.
This is especially true in regard to colored gemstones. Most of the time rough stones found in mines, like ruby and sapphire, are naturally opaque and murky, with only few exceptions which will be super expensive. There is, however, a technique called heat treatment. By heating the gemstones at a certain temperature, they become more vivid, translucent, and the cracks inside them can sometimes even be healed. Some version of the technique involves only heat, imitating the phenomena that naturally form the colored stones in the first place, while some adds other components such as chemicals, sand, and glass. Thailand is one of the few countries that have mastered this technique.
There are many explanations as to how Thailand developed this technique. One story says that Thai craftspeople discovered it by accident. In 1968, there was a big fire that destroyed a gem market in Chanthaburi, the gem city of Thailand. After the fire, many shop owners saw that their gemstones were not only undamaged but were even more beautiful than before. So, the gem traders in Chanthaburi began experimenting. Some of them even built their own furnaces by modifying existing materials, such as oil barrels and bricks. Many failed attempts that resulted in valueless gemstones have been sacrificed so they could gradually finetune their skills. The outcome of those efforts is a unique, hard-to-copy technique that highlights the beauty of the colored gemstones in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
At this point, you may start to worry about how to tell the natural gemstones and the processed ones apart. This is why Thailand prioritizes transparency in gem and jewelry trading so much, as will be discussed in the section below.
Aside from the quality improvement, Thailand is renowned on an international level for its lapidary as well. Since they started out when rough stones were rich in the country and hence were distributed at a much lower price, the lapidary enthusiasts had a lot of opportunity to sharpen their skills. Most colored gemstones found in Thailand are precious stones, including ruby, blue sapphire, and yellow sapphire, therefore Thai craftspeople became experts on cutting them. The experience teaches them to find the approach for each gem, that is, to choose which side and which style to cut it in order to achieve the best possible version of that stone. Nowadays, they are universally praised for their ability to create beautiful, balanced, and symmetrical gemstones solely by hands and relatively simple tools.
Source: Gemstone Cutter in Chanthaburi
Nationwide, over 18,000 workers are in the upstream gem and jewelry industries (mining, gem cutting, and polishing), with each region having their own specific expertise. For example, Chanthaburi in the East and Kanchanaburi in the West are famous for both processing colored gemstones and designing jewelry studded with those gemstones, while the Northern part of Thailand, especially Chiang Mai, has a variety of techniques for making silver jewelry. As for the Southern part, such as Ranong, Pangnga and Phuket, their pride lies in jewelry adorned with pearls. Additionally, Sukhothai houses a long history of gold jewelry with unique, intricate design. There are also different local identities noticeable in the design of the gems and jewelry, which emphasize the handcrafting aspect even further.
For Thailand, gems and jewelry transcend being just products, they have become a culture, and a way of living.
Supports by Research and Knowledge Provision
Being aware of the precious skills that many Thai craftspeople hold and its significance to the country, both culturally and economically, the government of Thailand supports them through GIT by encouraging more research on all aspects of the industry, from the sources of the gemstones to the design and marketing techniques, and sharing the knowledge with both the entrepreneurs and craftspeople.
Value-adding research includes, for example, investigations into various gemstone quality improvement methods and the development of colored stone heating furnace that will grant the craftspeople a more convenient tool for their heat treatment process, among others. There are also explorations to find the most efficient and reliable methods for verifying the standard of the gemstones, so that all gemstones in the country can be accurately examined and estimated. On the other hand, there is a body of research that focuses on the cultural aspect, especially the local identity of each jewelry production, ranging from the characteristics of ancient Sukhothai gold jewelry to the local wisdom embedded in the making of silver jewelry in Surin.
Source: Somsamai Gold Jewelry in Sukhothai
GIT curates all these articles and research, along with magazines and books on gem and jewelry industry, in their library in the center of Bangkok. They also arranged a digital library on https://elibrary.git.or.th/, with the contents both in Thai and English, so that they would be accessible to all entrepreneurs, designers, and curious citizens. Furthermore, there are articles on marketing and business, updating the entrepreneurs with the latest trend of the market, and giving them advices and inspirations.
Moreover, there are various opportunities for enthusiasts to develop their crafting skills by practicing with the best. For example, there is the SUPPORT foundation founded by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit The Queen Mother, where younglings from lower-income families can join an upskill program taught by the great artists of the country about how to craft the renowned Thai-style silverware, goldware and nielloware. The foundation’s aim is to ensure the continuation of these valuable skills even after the artists are all gone.
Internationally Accepted Standards and Laboratories
In such a craft-based industry, standard verification becomes particularly important. Knowing this, Thailand invests a lot to ensure that the gems and jewelry produced in the country are eligible for international standards. A part of the industry’s ecosystem that directly concerns standardization is the testing laboratory, and so it becomes the country’s main focus.
GIT issues reports for various types of gemstones, identified inside their own gem testing laboratory, with cutting-edge technology operated by professional gemologists. It has been certified by The World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) in 2000 and has only been improving since. At the present, the laboratory can verify gemstones, pearls, silver and gold, and the aspects verified are their quality, characteristics, and origin. Certainly, they can differentiate between natural gemstones and ones treated with heat and, with aiding research, examine colored stones from many origins and pinpoint those origins. All these properties are important factors in determining the price of the gemstone. All the certificates issued are printed onto a special type of paper that has 3D hologram picture of Thai Royal Palace on them so that they cannot be forged. This laboratory has a reputation of being 1 of the 7 best gem testing laboratories in the world.
GIT- Gem Testing Laboratory
Moreover, in 2020 GIT has established their own standard called GIT standard. Its purpose is to enhance the quality of the many independent testers in the country by creating concrete criteria that each laboratory must meet. To receive a GIT standard certification, a laboratory must excel in three aspects, which are the service, the methods for testing, analyzing and verification, and the laboratory’s staff. Being a governmental body, GIT is always unbiased and reliable in their evaluation.
Together with the laboratory’s standard, the country’s another focus is on training and verifying other independent entities who wish to join the world of gem and jewelry examination. They offer courses for gem specialist enthusiasts, such as Gem and Jewelry Business Diploma Program, Diamond Identification and Grading Course, and Gemmologist Diploma Program. Participants will get a certificate at the end of each course along with the knowledge and awareness for an ethical gemstone trading business.
Additionally, the country reassures the buyers who come to shop in Thailand by organizing a guarantee system called Buy With Confidence (BWC) for traders and jewelry shops. The guarantee comes in a form of stickers and tags that have BWC’s logo on them, along with a QR code providing the details of both the shops and the products. It is highly recommended to check for the guarantee every time before buying.
A Push Toward an Ethical Industry
Since gemstones and pearls originate as natural resources, it is impossible to overlook the potential threat to the environment and exploitation of labors along the supply chain. Therefore, GIT has taken several steps, and are considering taking several more, in urging Thailand’s gem and jewelry industry toward a more sustainable one as agreed upon by international organizations.
In the present, natural resources for gemstones in the country itself are mostly depleted. This means that the gemstones circulated in the country are mostly imported. Under this situation, ensuring that the rough stones imported are from ethical and transparent sources becomes the priority. Fortunately, unlike diamond mining industry, colored gemstones are usually discovered via artisanal mining by villagers and small-scale local businesses, and therefore not as much prone to unethical activities. Still, to be thoroughly sure, all gemstones must be declared for inspection at the moment of entry into the country either by shipment or hand-carried upon arrival at the airport. Thailand has no import duty as well as specified VAT exemption for foreigners who import rough stones for sale, but there is still a 1% withholding tax deducted from sales.
Another approach that Thailand adopts to create a sustainable industry is collaborating with the source countries of the gemstones. The rough stones imported to the country mostly originate in Africa, especially in Madagascar, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Mozambique. Since 2002, Thailand has been developing a good relationship with them. For example, jointly registered associations such as the Thai-Mada Association and the Thai-Mozambique Colored Stones Trade Association are established to dissimilate news and information on colored stone trading as well as related laws and regulations. There are also gemological training courses held by GIT for personnel from many African countries. And since the laboratory and equipment research is Thailand’s pride, GIT offers transnational consultation on those matters as well. By working closely with the countries that they import rough stones from, Thailand can simultaneously ensure that there are measures in place for a legal, ethical, and transparent gems trading, and help support the industry in source countries.
Creating an ethical awareness among the entrepreneurs and craftspeople is another priority of the country. GIT concretizes the need by becoming a member of Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), a non-profit international organization which aims to create an ethical standard for the whole industry. Acting as a communication channel between the global institution and Thailand, GIT has invited a representative of RJC for a seminar to educate Thai entrepreneurs, among many other activities with the purpose of persuading more businesses in Thailand to join the council. Right now, there are 50 businesses in Thailand that are members of the RJC, and the number is increasing each year.
Moreover, entrepreneurs are also encouraged to apply for a certification from RJC, which is only issued after an inspection by a third-party expert. To qualify, each business must conform with the RJC Code of Practices that include mainly 4 aspects: business ethics, human rights and social implementations, environmental implementations, and management systems. The certification is only issued when an inspection by a third-party expert has been executed.
By establishing standards both for the processes and the products within Thailand’s gem and jewelry industry and transmitting universally agreed ethics to Thai workers and entrepreneurs, GIT aims to help Thailand becomes a more sustainable ecosystem for gem and jewelry businesses.
Thailand is not flawless, but it is relentlessly striving to be better. The country has been improving on their strengths which are gemstone processing skills with research and standards, while also developing a sustainable supply chain that help the earth rather than hurt it. All the efforts are, in the end, to make sure that whenever you think about buying gems or jewelry for yourself or your loved ones, you will be able to rely on Thailand to supply you a beautiful high-quality product at an affordable price from an ethical source.