Bangkok Breaks Out

For the past few years, Bangkok has been working at moving its gem and jewelry industry from its traditional focus on gem manufacturing and price-based jewelry manufacturing to a more diverse industry offering high-quality jewelry and original designs.

This change was evident during the 34th Bangkok Gems and Jewelry Fair, held Sept. 12-16 at the sprawling Impact Center on the outskirts of Thailand’s capital city. With more exhibitors and a larger international presence, it now serves as the country’s main showcase for its emerging gem and jewelry industry. The fair is held twice a year, with the next show slated for February 2005.

Overall, the show drew more than 1,000 exhibitors using 2,800 booths—an increase of more than 200 booths from the previous year—and the exhibit space has grown to 645,834 sq. ft. Participation from international exhibitors has increased by approximately 20% from nearly every part of the world, says Narong Thamavaranukop, president of the Thai Gems and Jewelry Traders Association (TGJTA), which sponsors the show along with the Thai Department of Export Promotion (DEP).

A total of 26,337 visitors attended the show, an 8.5% increase over the previous year’s figures. The United States contributed the largest group of international visitors, making up 17% of the total, followed by India with 14%.

Organized for growth. This year marked the first time the exhibit space was organized on a single floor and separated by eight halls, with areas dedicated to equipment and tools, international exhibitors, pearl and diamond jewelry, body jewelry, costume jewelry, gemstones, gold jewelry, and silver jewelry.

Growth, particularly in the international arena, is a focus of the organizers and the Thai government, and with good reason: The show accounts for 30% of the country’s total gems and jewelry exports, says Pimpapaan Chansilpa, deputy director-general of the DEP. Officials say the success of the show is a key to help the country meets its goal of increasing annual exports of gems and jewelry to $5 billion in four years. During the first half of the year, exports of gems and jewelry were valued at $1.2 billion.

The show’s importance was underscored by Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“The Thai gem and jewelry industry continues to be a priority of the government as it plays an important role in our economy; not just boosting sales figures but also in providing employment for over 1 million people,” he said during the fair’s opening ceremony.

In addition to the show’s breadth and organization, the Impact Center is now a more comfortable place to do business. There were a large number of computers throughout the exhibition hall for public use and several “VIP lounges,” where buyers and suppliers could meet over coffee, tea, and snacks. Several high-quality restaurants and food courts on the premises sell Thai food at reasonable prices.

“We are confident that by being modern and integrated, the venue will allow operators and buyers to meet and, through this, expand the market for Thai gems and jewelry, bringing the local brands into the world arena,” Thamavaranukop says.

Many of the exhibitors and visitors approved of the upgrades, as noted by Mark Leonard, director of Thailand for OneService, which provides insured shipping for the gem and jewelry industry.

“I’ve been doing this show since February 1999, and I think it’s the best show yet,” Leonard says. “They really did a great job of expanding the show by adding more fine-jewelry exhibitors and having a whole new hall for silver.”

Others, while approving of the changes, had hoped to either do more business or view something new and different.

“I think it’s okay, [but] there isn’t much to get excited about,” says Jahann Viljeen of World of Gems & Jewellery, Windhoek, Nambia, which is involved in mining, cutting, jewelry manufacturing, and wholesale and exports.

Viljeen, who also serves as an honorary trade advisor for Thailand, emphasizes the importance of the Bangkok show and notes that numbers don’t tell whole story. “It’s not only about the number of buyers, it’s also about the quality of buyers,” he says. “Each and every contact you make is important, which is why you should attend the show every year.”

Amit Dhamani, managing director of the Dhamani Group of Companies—a jewelry manufacturer and retailer with manufacturing facilities in Bangkok and Mumbai, India, and retail stores in Dubai—noted that the Bangkok show took place at about the same time as trade shows in Italy, Spain, and Hong Kong, which may have affected attendance.

“This time there’s too much overlapping of shows,” says Dhamani, who’s been exhibiting at the show for 10 years. “Normally it’s a very good show.”

Craftsmanship and variety. Dhamani is among the manufacturers that have taken advantage of the quality of craftsmanship available in Bangkok to produce high-quality jewelry.

Dhamani says his company produces one-of-a-kind jewelry designs using certified precious stones, including “high-quality” Belgian diamonds. One of its designs uses Burmese rubies and pavé diamonds on a necklace and earrings set. “We make fine pieces with nice, worthy gems,” he says.

Two years ago, Carl Blackburn established CB Jewelry Ltd. in Thailand (better known as Carl Blackburn Fine Jewels), which produces vintage-design jewelry, primarily from the Art Deco and Victorian periods. The U.S. native and veteran of the jewelry business says he moved to Thailand to take advantage of the country’s quality jewelry craftsmen, to have access to high-quality gems and precious metals, and to take advantage of the relatively low cost of doing business. All of his jewelry is handcrafted, and he is increasingly doing more designs that require craftsmen who work with materials such as micropavé diamonds and calibrated French-cut rutilites. He works with 18k gold in various colors as well as with platinum, and he incorporates diamonds and precious stones into most of his work. All engraving and milling is done by hand.

Some of the new work Blackburn displayed at the show included platinum rings engraved in a floral pattern with upper and lower bands of yellow, red, or pink gold. In several cases the gold bands were rimmed with “diamond cut” pink sapphires, and the platinum floral engraving contained a scattering of diamonds or pink and yellow sapphires.

According to Blackburn, “There aren’t many people doing this kind of work—this micro-lapidary work where every stone is cut to fit the piece.”

Creative Gems and Jewelry is a manufacturer that focuses on multicolored gemstones.

“A lot of what we do is spiral-cut and special-cut stones,” says Udomkiet “Paul” Lohaphantakit, jewelry marketing and senior sales manager of the Bangkok-based company. “We like to use brighter-colored stones, such as pink and purple, and shape them in flowers and animals.”

One example of this is the company’s 14k yellow gold necklace, ring, and earrings set, cut in a floral arrangement using purple, orange, green, and blue stones.

Focus on original design. Two years ago, Thai officials announced that they were ready to embark on several initiatives to train jewelry designers and create a jewelry design culture based on European design. The first of these initiatives is near completion and was showcased at this year’s Bangkok show.

Called the “Dynamics Project,” the initial work of 16 students of various backgrounds was unveiled at the show.

Spanish jewelry designer Chus Bures created the program, and the work was funded and managed by the DEP and TGJTA. The idea was to take advantage of the country’s rich heritage of craftsmanship and use this heritage to create a unique design culture.

From April to October 2004, Bures hosted a series of workshops on jewelry design. But learning the techniques of jewelry design was only part of the task. The true goal of the program was to help students learn the importance of art and design, how design can be used to enhance their daily lives, how to work with original ideas, and how to promote their work. Bures said the job was much more difficult than he first anticipated because much of what he was teaching was foreign to the Thai culture.

“At times, understanding them, their different personalities, their set ways of thinking—all colored by a culture different from mine—proved as much of a test for me as it was for them to absorb the concepts being demonstrated,” Bures says. “Part of my job was to help them learn and realize how design is so important in their lives. The important thing now is that they have a different mindset.”

They also have a body of work that focuses on original ideas and the uniqueness of the Thai culture. And the work shows a breadth of materials and techniques that reflects the diversity of the students—factory workers, business persons, and art and jewelry students ranging in age from 23 to 50—chosen by the Thai sponsors.

For example, Vinita Sinturuck, who works in his family real estate business, displayed a work titled “Morph,” a richly textured bracelet made of sterling silver foil. The design was inspired by Lanna textiles, which he says are unique in both materials and patterns.

Sinturuck, whose goal is to be a full-time jewelry designer, says the Dynamics Project helped him understand the process and importance of art and design.

“Chus opened my mind,” he says. “Not only with the individual ring or earring but also in terms of how jewelry works with the whole body and with all the materials you can use.”

The work of Thitiwan Thubtimthong stands in contrast to Sinturuck’s piece. Thubtimthong’s body ornament titled “Center of Power” is a round silver ornament containing a projection image of the human body. A long leather rope allows the ornament to be worn at the center of the body.

Thubtimthong, a working artist, says her ornament was inspired by the hermit’s art of healing in Wat Pho. She says the philosophy is based on a method of healing that unites mind and body, and the place where that healing begins is at the center of the body.

At 23, Thubtimthong is the youngest of the students. She explains that the Dynamics Project taught her how to produce work in a factory environment: “In a factory the process is different because an artist works as an individual,” she says, adding that she enjoyed the diversity of the group because members came with such a wide range of original ideas.

Bunnom Rakchat created a large handmade expanding necklace using sterling silver laced with pink silk in the “Bua” or Lotus pattern. She said the pattern is generally used in architecture from the Sukhothai region of Thailand.

According to Rakchat, the program changed the way she approaches design: “I now have an open mind where I have learned new ideas and a new way of designing.”