Gold Jewelry

Thai gold goes back a long way. In the past there were extensive gold mines in Thailand. Indeed the word Siam, as Thailand was originally called, means 'gold' in Sanskrit; the Indians called it Suvannabhumi ( Land of Gold ), and the Chinese Jin Lin ( Peninsula of Gold ). The gold trade, which stretches back about 2000 years, was probably the first contact that Thailand had with the outside world. Suphanburi (province of gold) in central Thailand and nearby Utong (plentiful gold) may have been centres of the gold industry.

Gold and Buddhism

Gold has a religious significance for Thais. In Buddhist literature, both Pali and Sanskrit, the Buddha is described as having skin of gold. A golden complexion is the eleventh of the 32 characteristics of the Buddha. Many Buddha images in Thailand are made of gold and gold leaf is stuck onto Buddha images as part of religious rituals. The largest buddha image in the world is the Golden Buddha, now housed in Wat Trimitr. It is made of pure gold and weighs over 5 tons making it worth around $61 million just for the gold.

Gold artwork originated from craftsmen in the royal palaces. Craftsmanship was developed through the ages and during the Lawo period, Queen Chammadevi journeyed from Lawo (presently Lop Buri province) which was the center of the Khmer kingdom in the Ayutthaya bain, to be enthroned as the Queen of Haripunchai (Lampoon Province). Her Majesty was accompanied by 500 goldsmiths, silversmiths, ironsmiths and othe smiths, demonstrating how important craftsmen were in building an empire and beautifying a city.

Srivichai period

During the Srivichai period, goldsmiths knew how to make gold foil for use in Buddhist religious ceromonies, as more and more Buddha statues were gold plated. Of the gold ornaments produced, gold beads were made in the South and Central regions, while in the Lop Buri period, various objects used in religious ceremonies and utensils were gold plated.

Sukhothai period (1249 - 1438)

The engraved slabs at Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai, illustrating the Jataka tales (which relate the previous lives of the historical Buddha), show figures wearing elaborate adornments, including necklaces and crowns. The 1292 inscription attributed to King Ramkamhaeng specifically allows free trade in silver and gold, although the wearing of gold was restricted by sumptuary laws to the nobility and free use of bold ornamentation was allowed only from the mid-19th century, under King Rama V.

During the Sukhothai period, more gold was beaten into flat, thin sheets to cover Buddha statuettes and goldsmiths knew how to goldplate large Buddha statues, for example, Prabuddhachinnarat, Prabuddha sihing, Prasrisakkaya munee and Prachinnasri. Gold foil was used to plate bronze and other metallic Buddha statues. Ornaments were however simple, smooth and with minimal designs. Gold caskets and boxes with small replicas of pagodas made of gold to contain relics have been found. Gold utensils were rare.

Ayutthaya period (1350 - 1767)


During the Ayutthaya period, gold played a major role in the constructions of Buddha statues, temples and places, so much so that it was considered the Golden Age of gold. Gold foil was used to cover the spires of palaces, pagodas and finials on the roof ridges and Buddha statues.

The Ayutthayan period was the high point of Thai gold jewelry design. Nicholas Gervais, a French Jesuit missionary writing in the late 17th century was of the opinion that "Siamese goldsmiths are scarcely less skilled than ours. They make thousands of little gold and silver ornaments, which are the most elegant objects in the world. Nobody can damascene more delicately than they nor do filigree work better. They use very little solder, for they are so skilled at binding together and setting the pieces of metal that it is difficult to see the joints."

Gold work was revived under King Rama I in Bangkok after the defeat at Ayutthaya, and foreign visitors frequently noted the enthusiasm of wealthy Thais for gold ornament. Yet this very enthusiasm may ultimately have played a part in the decline of traditional Thai gold smithing, for during the 19th century, when King Rama V became the first monarch to travel abroad, a number of foreign jewelers set up branches in Bangkok, including Faberge. Chinese immigrant goldsmiths catered to clients with less refined tastes. The Norwegian traveler Carl Bock wrote in 1888: “The manufacture of gold and silver jewelry, which is
carried on to a large extent in Bangkok, is entirely in the hands of the Chinese.”

Gold Industry Today

Today gold is an important part of Thailand's jewelry industry which is the kingdom's second largest export. The main export destinations are Hong Kong, Japan and the United States. The export jewelery, however, is chiefly gem-set using 10, 14 and 18 karat gold settings. Thailand is the second largest jewelry exporter in the world exporting officially 100 billion bahts worth of jewelry each year although this figure probably understates the true size of the industry as a large amount is smuggled out of the country to avoid taxes.

The kingdom imports 100 tonnes of gold on average a year. The figure could go up to 150 tonnes during an economic boom. About 20-30% of imports are for re-export.

There are 60 gold wholesalers in Bangkok and 3 outside. Thailand has around 6000 small gold shops.

The gold  mines are now exhausted but a recent discovery was made at Pichit. Owned by Australia's Kingsgate Consolidated through its Thai subsidiary Akara Mining, the Chatree mine is one of the world's lowest cost and most profitable operations.

Gold and the Dowry

Traditionally dowries, or sinsot, were paid in the form of gold ornaments. Today the dowry may be given as cash or gold.

Presents of gold jewelry are given to Thais at all stages of life from childhood onwards.


Thai gold ornaments

 

Pricing gold

Thais use a unique unit of measurement for weighing gold, the  "baht"  which is precisely 15.244 grams before the gold is worked or 15.16 grams after. Most gold shops will display on their windows the current buying and selling price of a "baht" of gold bullion of 96.5% purity.  Gold can also be measured in "satangs" and "salungs". 100 satangs = 1 baht and 25 satangs = 1 salung.

1 baht in approximately half an ounce of gold (1 troy ounce = 31.1034768 grams) so a rough and ready way to calculate the value is to divide the price of gold in ounces by 2.

The baht is also the Thai currency unit which is somewhat confusing!

100% gold is considered too soft for jewelry. In the past, perhaps 40 years ago, most gold was 98% pure, with the joints and other delicate parts being made of an alloy called nam prasam tong. Nowadays most gold sold in Thailand is 96.5% purity which is just over  23 karat. The remaining 3.5% consists of silver and bronze.  Some is 98% which is called 24 karat and in some shops  they sell 20 or 18 karat gold. The company Gold Master sells 99% pure gold. Prima Gold, which is a subsidiary of Pranda Jewelry sells 99.99% pure gold; they are also the market leader in 24k white gold. There are no shops selling Prima Gold in the US as yet, but you can buy it through the TV shopping channels.

There is no  hallmarking system in Thailand  although random checks are made periodically on gold shops to determine the purity of the gold.

In department stores you will  have to pay 7% sales tax. However in many gold shops you will not have to pay any tax.

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