Fashion and Style

Thailand Highlights Its Rich History in Jewelry

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.

“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.”

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.

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.”

“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.”

“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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