BANGKOK — This is a gem of a city.
Among its glittering facets the most astonishing to first-time visitors are its massive, jewel-like gilded temples that sparkle. Thought of as earthly representations of heavenly pleasures, the temples are encrusted with mosaics of shining mirrors and colored glass.
All the glitter of the temples is reflected, on a smaller but still impressive scale, in this city's dozens of lapidary factories and hundreds of jewelers. For those who want to take home some of Bangkok's sparkle, these studios and shops are terrific sources for finely cut loose gemstones and plain gold and/or gem-encrusted jewelry.
Because stone cutting and jewelry making are labor intensive and the cost of skilled labor is relatively cheap in Thailand, gems, gold and jewelry are among Bangkok's best buys. Prices for loose gems ranging in quality from mediocre to exceptional, or for magnificent baubles fit for royalty, are usually less than half of what they would be in the United States or Europe.
Bangkok's jewelry industry has always had appeal, largely because of the unique and elaborate designs it has traditionally produced. Yet until recently, local gemstone dealers were reputed to take advantage of naive buyers, and workmanship was not of high quality. So all but the most informed buyers were best off buying attractive but inexpensive costume jewelry.
Cutting More Organized
In the 1960s, when mining and the cutting of local rubies, sapphires, garnets and zircons became more organized in response to market demand, the industry began to change. (Burma, the traditional source for these colored stones, was no longer exporting, thanks to political turmoil.)
At first, locally-mined stones were sent to Hong Kong or Singapore for cutting, setting and sale. But gradually, local lapidaries and jewelers developed the skills required to create their own exquisitely designed and finely worked pieces to compete with other, better established Asian jewelry centers.
The industry was given a boost in 1977, when the Thai government discontinued import duties on loose gemstones. Skilled Thai jewelers could then enhance their pieces with Colombian emeralds, sapphires from Sri Lanka and diamonds from Brazil, Siberia and South Africa, as well as locally mined stones.
In the past 10 years the jewelry industry has become Thailand's fifth-ranked earner of foreign currency. The export of gemstones and jewelry earned the nation in excess of $1 billion last year. It is estimated that more than 100,000 skilled stone cutters and setters are employed in Thailand.
Many of the lapidary factories are large commercial centers and cater to tourists. They are located throughout the city (some on the outskirts of town) and many will send cars to pick you up if you call for an appointment. Larger factories are scheduled stops on city tours that leave regularly from all the big hotels. It's taken for granted that guides get kick-backs on sales they bring in.
The factories feature tours of their cutting rooms, give cursory presentations about the characteristics and quality of various stones, and sell vast quantities of prepackaged, pre-matched loose stones in cellophane envelopes priced by weight.
Individual stones are stored in glass or plastic bins, and customers may ask to be shown any number of them until they find one or several they like. Salespeople are patient, polite. They even serve tea.
Although these factories don't handle the finest stones or most exciting settings, they are good sources for relatively inexpensive ruby rings, sapphire pendants, garnet earrings and other souvenirs, as well as for replacements for stones that have been lost from fine jewelry in the vault back home.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand's (TAT) Shopping Guide (free at the airport, most hotels and tourist information bureaus) lists more than 100 recommended lapidary factories and jewelry shops.
TAT recommended shops are best bets for honesty and fair prices, but buyers should always carefully examine stones and settings and ask for receipts and certificates that show grade, weight and price.
72 Settings Offered
The N.P. Gems Factory Ltd. (295/2 Rajchaprarob, Phayathai) is one of the recommended shops. In a pleasant and calm environment, the shop offers its 72 standard ring settings ranging from elegant bands of rubies, sapphires, diamonds and/or emeralds to elaborate floral or ornate geometric designs.
Set in 18-carat gold, the rings cost about $100 and up. Bracelets cost about $140 and up; a pretty 18-carat gold chain with 22 tiny rubies or sapphires sells for $200. There are pretty pendants for about $60 and up. Loose stones are sold by carat: sapphires are about $28 and up per carat, rubies about $35 and up, mabe pearls about $20 and up and regular pearls about $30 per carat.
Similar prices are available at TAT recommended Muang Thong Gems (55 Phayathai Road), as well as at Pata Gems 33/6-7 Phayathai Road) and Polin Ltd. (860 Rama IV Road).