THAI CRAFTS: GOLDSMITHING, FRUIT CARVING AND REGIONAL CRAFTS IN THAILAND

THAI CRAFTS

Thai design is well regarded around the world. It permeates everything. People move with gentleness and grace. Palms, feet and the eaves of buildings are turned upwards. Providing service and decorating fruit are works of art. Even Thai-style boxing is like a ritualized dance.

Thai crafts include carved wood sculptures, stone sculpture, ceramics, traditional betel-leaf lacquerware, theatrical masks, metalwork sculptures, lotus-flower ceramics and embroidery. Master craftsmen can make $10,000 or $20,000 a year, three or four times the national average.

According to a Thai government e-brochure: “Local wisdom reflected in people’s inventions is a unique side of Thai culture, as such inventions reflect the knowledge discovered or acquired by local people through the accumulation of experience and knowledge inherited from their ancestors through many generations, as evidenced in silk weaving, basketry, moldings, and carvings. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

“The traditions and lifestyles of the Thai people also reflect a unique culture, be they the tradition of the personal blessing ceremony, for spiritual strengthening and encouragement, the blessing of a one-month-old child with the first hair shaving, for the newborn’s auspices, or religious functions such as daily alms-giving, Thot Pha Pa merit-making, Songkran or the Thai New Year, and the Loy Krathong ceremony, celebrated every year in all regions of the country. [Ibid]

Thailand won the 2002 Olympics Arts Festival Ice Carving Competition with a sculpture by Vivat Hongpong and Songtham Hongpong depicting a fairy flying around a fountain. The work was called the “The Sound of Paradise.”

Thai Goldsmithing

Kupluthai Pungkanon wrote in The Nation: “In the ancient tradition, crafting gold jewellery was subject to exquisite craftsmanship and very much part of Thai tradition. Gold represented prosperity, wealth, art, and culture. Starting in the Sukhothai period and continuing through the Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin eras, gold jewellery was used to develop the relations between countries with five of the most distinguished goldsmith families being based in Sukhothai, Phetchaburi, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Chiang Mai and Surin provinces. [Source: Kupluthai Pungkanon, The Nation, October 3, 2011]

Professor Niphon Yodkhampun, a royal goldsmith with the Bureau of the Royal Household and professor at the Faculty of Jewellery Design, Golden Jubilee Royal Goldsmith College, told The Nation: "Gold jewellery in the past represented the status of the wearer. The Three Seals Law prohibited peasants from wearing gold because gold jewellery belonged to the King, who is the living god according to Brahman beliefs. Precious gold is believed to deliver mysterious powers. Those who were able to wear gold jewellery in the past were certainly not ordinary people.” [Ibid]

“Goldsmiths too were far from ordinary,” Kupluthai wrote. “Not only did fashioning jewellery from the most precious metal require a high level of concentration but also high moral standards — they could feel no attachment to their creations nor any greed. A royal goldsmith worked to serve the royal family. Royal gold jewellery was grand, refined and very delicate. “ [Ibid]

"Even today, while creating gold jewellery, the goldsmith has to be pure at heart. Love, attachment and care can be put into the artwork in order to create an incredible piece of art but the feeling at the outcome of jewellery is different. That's why sometimes you can tell if the goldsmith is in a good mood or not," Niphon said. "Also, we might think it's unnecessary to have a pattern inside or on the back of the jewellery but some goldsmiths insist on it. They do it to show their honesty and attention to detail." [Ibid]

Preserving Ancient Thai Goldsmithing Skills

To ensure the exquisite craftsmanship of ancient gold jewellery, the career of royal goldsmith must be preserved, Professor Niphon said, “Speaking during a group discussion on the topic "Legend of Crafting Gold Jewellery: Exquisite Craftsmanship of the National Heritage" held in conjunction with House of Goldsmiths Group at the Siam Kempinski Hotel, Niphon pointed out that goldsmiths were a dying breed. "There are about 20 royal goldsmiths in the country and some 150 graduates from the college, who are completing the seven-year course," he says. "Master craftsmen of ancient art styles cannot survive unless people recognise the value of the genre and the artistic creation. In the past, working with gold had much to do family lineage; today, it is more closely related to the economy and modern manufacture." [Source: Kupluthai Pungkanon, The Nation, October 3, 2011]

Sornsida Chanonprapa, a third generation member of the House of Goldsmiths Group, is carrying on the family's tradition with her two-year-old Goldlery brand."Think about going to a gold boutique. Have you wondered why you unhesitatingly pick one piece over another? If we have a piece we cannot sell, we still say that it's waiting for the right owner," she told The Nation. [Ibid]

“Part of the 70-year-old Baan Chang Thong goldsmith family, Sornsida is working on modernising the group's management and marketing as well as developing product and design. She's integrating new technology to create masterpieces and is responding to the demands of today's market by designing elegant, fashionable, and wearable pieces for the modern working women. [Ibid]

“Goldlery's Ga-Ran-Dha collection uses Sukhothai's sroi see sao (four-stones pillars) design to create a modern rectangular shape for earrings, ring and necklace. The Panchan collection's design is inspired by Phetchaburi's provincial speciality, the nutmeg fruit. "With a new approach to design, gold jewellery becomes friendlier," says Sornsida. "Embellishing and making beautiful things is very Thai." And so the craftsmanship of the goldsmiths must be passed on down the line. "Precious gold is the symbol of wealth, and it will always be more valuable in the future," says Niphon. "I believe all kind of master crafts, especially ancient ones, need conserving. The royal goldsmith is one of them."

Kae Sa Lak (Fruit and Vegetable Carving)

In Thailand, vegetables and fruit are carved into the shapes of flowers and other objects. Carnations are made from radishes, roses from water melons. Competitions for kae sa lak (“fruit and vegetable carving”) are held and classes in the art form are offered at universities.

According to to the Siam Carving Academy: Nobody can completely pinpoint when fruit and vegetable carving began, but one of the most popular stories has Kae Sa Lak starting about 700 years ago in Sukothai. Sukhothai was the capital of Thailand between 1240 and 1350. It hosted the Loi Kratong, a festival in which people send krathongs (floating lamp or raft) floating down a river, canal, pond, or lake. A woman by the name of Nang Noppamart, who was one of the King’s servants, wanted to make her kratong more beautiful so that she could please her King. She decided to take a flower and use it as a carving pattern. She also carved a bird and set it with the head pointing towards the flower. This was the first evidence of fruit and vegetable carving. King Phra Ruang was so impressed with how beautiful and graceful the carving was that he wanted every woman to learn the new culinary art form. [Source: Siam Carving Academy, February 25th, 2011]

In 1808, fruit and vegetable carving was highlighted in poetry written by King Rama II. He loved the culinary art form very much. Around this time kae sa lak became very competitive and secretive. Experts shared their carving secrets only with their own families. Kae sa lak nearly died out after the revolution of 1932 that ousted the Thai monrachy from power. In recent decades it has been revived and is now taught in primary schools starting from the age of 11 and all the way through secondary school.

Fruit and vegetable carving has become very popular across the globe. It is featured in fine restaurants, hotels, weddings, country clubs, catering halls, exhibitions, at special events in Thailand and elsewhere. Classes in kae sa lak are offered to tourists in Thailand and some other countries. Classes at the Siam Carving Academy are taught by Gold Medal World Champion Wan Hertz.

Regional Crafts in Thailand

The North inherited the Lan Na culture, as is evident in the art forms, architecture, performing arts, and lifestyle of the people, emphasizing gentleness and slow movements. The northern region is also home to numerous hill tribes, mainly Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, and Lisu, each with its distinct language and culture. These hill people also have many of their own traditions and beliefs, reflected in their garments, occupations, and handicrafts. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

The unique identity of this cultural tradition is evident in the everyday lifestyle of the people, particularly their local folk crafts, widely recognized as the charming heritage of northern families, such as textiles, silverwork, ornaments, wood carvings, and basketry. They represent the wisdom passing from ancestor to descendant, a priceless treasure deserving of conservation.

Northeasterners are known as sincere and witty people. They constantly face drought and floods, and survive through faith and pragmatism. Their culture is a mixture of Thai, Lao, and Khmer traditions. The Isan Thais are known for their silkweaving skills, particularly mudmee silk, and for khit, a raised embroidered border textile made famous around the world. In addition, fine architecture with influences from the ancient Khmer Empire can be found at archeological sites in various provinces in the Northeast.

Crafts in Southern Thailand

Crafts from southern Thailand include krajude (bulrush) basketry, ceramics, nielloware, and hide carving. Ever since Queen Sirikit first took a trip to the South in 1973, she has given her steady support to local crafts, which differ from community to community but are still worth preserving, such as the nielloware of Nakhon Si Thammarat and the yan lipao basketry of Narathiwat. Her desire is to prevent the disappearance of these ancient arts and to start a revival by new generations who genuinely understand the maximum utilization of local resources on the foundation of self-reliance and sustainability of their livelihood. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Pattani is unique among the southern provinces of Thailand on account of its long history and advancement of the arts and culture. It enjoys the geographical advantage of a coastal location nestled inside a large bay, making it an ideal port of call. An overland route and a watercourse shorten the journey to the Indian Ocean, to the west. The most distinguished and universally recognized crafts of Pattani are krisses (daggers), bird cages of all stripes and styles, brassware, gunsmithing, kolae boats, chuantani fabric, and ceramics.

Thai Copies

Thai craftsmen are very good at copying ancient Funan, Cham, Chinese, Siamese, Khmer and Burmese sculptures. Collectors have paid $100,000 for Funan-era stone sculptures and $15,000 for Khmer bas-reliefs that turned out to be $1,000 copies made by Thai craftsmen. According to some estimated three quarters of the "antiques" sold at antique shops in Bangkok are recent copies. In many cases, certificates of authenticity can be easily forged.

One museum curator told Smithsonian magazine, "It's a great game, an ego trip to fool the great dealers of the world. The uneasy relationship between the artisans who make reproductions and museum curators is one of long standing. The challenge presented to us by their objects keep us on our toes. The craftsman claim they are only practicing a trade and they have no intent to deceive anyone. Even so, the works are often purposely disfigured, buried, torched and treated with chemicals to make them look older.

The Artist Studio in Phuket (Soi Bangla, Patong Beach) is where you can have copies of works made by Warhol, Piccaso, Jasper Johns, Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, van Gogh and Modigliani made to order. The artists make up $5,000 a month selling paintings that cost between $100 and $1,000.

Looting of Art and Thailand

Much of the art and artifacts that are looted in Cambodia end up in Bangkok, where it is often sold quite openly. At the River City shopping plaza in Bangkok stores display sculptures that are purported to be Khmer originals. Most are fakes but the fact that even some are real is very troubling. Authorities can't do much because Thailand never signed a 1970 UNESCO convention against international art smuggling.

Some shops give items labels like “12th century Khmer.” One French archeologist told AP he admired several heads of vultures at Banteay Srei and when he returned six months later they were gone. An American archeologist said he saw one pierce he discovered at Bateay Chhmar on sale at aa Thai antique shop for $8,000.

Much of them blame for their thievery has been directed at Thai antiques dealers. Up until the mid-1990s, customers could reportedly go into antique shops in Bangkok and look at pictures books of temples and order pieces that would later be sawed off and looted from them. The back of some pieces on sale at the shops have fresh chisel markers. Dealers claim they acquired the stuff legitimately and pull out paper to back them up. The offer pieces for $10,000 and say they be sold in New York for $50,000.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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