A History of Gems and Metals
When you are marveling at the treasures you will find in great abundance in the many sales outlets in Chiangmai, why not pause to consider the historical development of what is now one of Thailand's most lucrative businesses.
The tradition of goldcraft is attributed to the early Hindu settlers, explorers and traders who spread from the Dravidian lands of Southern and Eastern India bringing their ancient gold working traditions with them nearly 2,000 years ago. Their methods were adopted by the Dvaravati Mons who then dwelt in the Chao Phraya basin. Their first gold pieces, which appeared in the 1st century, were distinctively Hindu-inspired.
The Mon people were the dominant influence on the early development of goldsmithing in the lands that were to become modern Thailand, and they strongly guided the development of goldcraft in the emerging Khmer civilization that arose in the east. The Tai people, migrating south from Yunnan, also came into contact with the Mon and this gave direction to their style of goldwork.
In modern, Thailand, goldworking traditions are mainly directed towards modern gold necklaces and rings, that remain a source of ready cash for many Thais who still value the solid security of gold over paper money. However, much detailed and intricate work goes into making the settings for the thriving jewelry industry.
Chiangmai is, of course, famous for the quality and profusion of its silverware. World silver markets are presently in resurgence and silver is a great buy nowadays, even modern pieces, lacking the patina of age, appreciate rapidly in value. The ancient Hindu influence also directed the development of silverwork in Thailand but it was very much confined to creating decorative items or ceremonial and religious articles such as trays, bowls and betel sets.
With the rise of Chiangmai and its handicraft industries 700 years ago, silver-tooling began to develop in earnest. For the first time fine decorative and jewellery items were created. This was in part due to an influx of Burmese refugees, following the fall of Pagan, who brought their arts and skills with them, and the style know as northern Thai silver was created. It was gradually modified over time by the Tai people in their southward migration.
Northern Thai silver should not be confused with the distinctive and very different Nielloware introduced by the Portuguese seafarers to the peoples of southern peninsular Thailand. This increasingly rare art involves fusing dark alloy to the silver, thus creating a colour contrast of light and dark when the patterns are engraved in the metal.
Thailand has long been famed for its wide range of precious and semiprecious stones, but increasingly few are actually mined in the Kingdom, while yet others, such as diamonds have never been extracted from Thailand's mineral deposits. The very first gems used were rubies which appeared in Mon gold jewellery, with its distinctive "dot" design, the dots being individual rubies. Increasingly, the use of emeralds and sapphires in combination with rubies, came into vogue, culminating in some of the truly splendid works of the Ayutthaya Period, 200 to 600 years ago, where the goldcrafted crowns, swords, even items of clothing such as slippers, were lavishly spangled and studded with a plethora of sparkling stones setting off the magnificence of the goldwork that adorned the royalty of those bygone days.
Only within the last century has Thailand's precious gems industry truly sprung to life when gold and jewels ceased to be the exclusive prerequisite of royalty and became, therefore, available to many others who could afford them. This inevitably triggered an increase in the number of craftsmen who work the gold, and cut and polish the gemstones. Gradually what had been almost exclusively a cottage industry developed into one of the Kingdom's main industrial enterprises.
Thailand, and its neighbors, especially Myanmar, Cambodia, and, more distantly, Sri Lanka, have some of the most bountiful sources of colored gemstones in the world. With all these countries being famed for their rubies and sapphires, small towns have become important gem-dealing markets. Mae Sot in Tak province, and Mai Sai, north of Chiangrai, being two examples of such towns in northern Thailand. Thailand has become the hub of the region's importing, cutting, polishing and setting industries, and now is a major importer of diamonds used in settings for export to jewelry lovers all around the world. Pearls also are produced in the south and, in the north, jade and jadeite are of good quality and not too costly.
So, visitors, why not make your trip complete with a purchase of jewellery or precious metal. A word of warning though, as in any business there are fair traders and others that are less reliable. A list of those we recommend is appended at the foot of this article. Never, though, unless you are a true expert, try and buy stones as investment in the border markets. If a pretty stone catches your eye and the price is within your budget for a souvenir, why not buy. Should you be approached on the streets by people offering you a "bargain", it won't be -- just say no!
We recommend the following gold and gem shops in Chiangmai: Gems Gallery, Sankampaeng Rd. (A must see - it's the largest jewelry store in the world). More recommendations can be found in our Shopping Directory list.
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