Jeweler to royalty sought the help of Princess in Chiang Mai. Men identify Winston with cigarettes but women think of Diamonds. Back when Myanmar was Burma, and its borders were closed to the outside world, the late Harry Winston, jeweler to royalty and Hollywood stars, visited Chiang Mai to seek advice on Burmese jade from city jeweller Somchai Srisawat, owner of Princess Jewelry.
"He didn't buy anything," Khun Somchai told me, "but he examined my stock, and asked many questions about how to recognise the very best quality of the Burmese stones. "Back then," said Khun Somchai, "I used to run jade auctions in the city; something like Sotheby's or Christie's do today."
Harry Winston's expertise in the diamond trade was second to none, but the multimillionaire asked jade dealers whom to consult on the "Inscrutable gem." Old Harry was advised to head for Chiang Mai to seek out Khun Somchai Srisawat of Princess Jewelry on Changklan Road. I look around for the sign saying, "Consultants to Harry Winston", but see none. I am not an advertising man, but when Khun Somchai reveals that 80% of his customers are from the USA, I urge him to go, with some urgency, to the nearest sign maker!
He shrugs his shoulders, and with a smile as inscrutable as the gemstone in question, hands me over to his lovely daughter, and General Manager of the company, Ann.
Ann is one of three of the five Srisawat children to have gone into the family business, is a fully qualified gemologist , graduate from the world renown Gemological Institute of America ( my translator for the day, since Khun Somchai's English matches my Thai), and a young lady with a flawless command of the English language. She tells me that the most popular items with her clientele are diamond engagement rings, necklaces and pendants, although many Asian customers still buy jade. As we chat, Ann's sister, Sirimas, who graduated in gemology in Belgium, is attending to a customer's needs.
The range is astonishing: from 100 baht trinkets for teenagers to Burmese blue sapphires running into seven figures. Ann tells me that a customer from Taiwan bought one of these stones for six million baht, while the British peer, and television personality Lord Charles Brocket, paid three million baht for his stone.
Ann tells me that her mother and father used to travel abroad to purchase their gems, but have since set up a string of reliable agents in Africa, India, Kashmir and Burma.
She points out that in the company's 34 years of doing business, they have never had one customer complaint, adding that the only time the Tourist Police have been in their shops is as customers! Indeed, a great percentage of Princess Jewelry customers are regulars. People from the United States, Europe and throughout Asia return time and again to make purchases with people they trust.
Ann tells me that her mother, Khun Chongmas, and father, Khun Somchai, do not encourage tour guides or taxi drivers to bring customers to either of their shops on Changklan Road. "We rely on our reputation, alone, to attract customers," says Ann. "We would never entertain touts bringing potential clients to our establishments," she adds.
Thailand has earned the right to be known as the world's gem and jewelry centre, employing more than 1.2 million people with projected export sales of around five billion US dollars before the end of the decade. Precious stones are sent here by some of the world biggest trading houses to be cut and polished by Thai artisans.
Shopping is one of the main reasons people come to Chiang Mai (honestly guys), and if you decide on treating your better half to a ring, necklace, bracelet, or some other special piece of jewelry, you have come to the right place.
Did you know that the first diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy from Archduke Maximillian of Austria in 1477? And we men have been led like donkeys by the carat (pun intended) ever since!
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