GEMS, SAPPHIRES, EMERALDS, DIAMONDS AND PEARLS AND THAILAND

GEMS IN THAILAND

Thailand is a rich source of sapphire, ruby, zircon, garnet, beryl, quartz, and jadeite, and gems and jewelry are a large export item in terms of value. Significant deposits of rubies were located in Chanthaburi and Trat provinces in the southern part of central Thailand, and deposits of sapphire were found in Kanchanaburi Province. Star sapphires come from the Chanthaburi mines. Many of the rubies come from across the borders in Burma and Cambodia.

Chanthaburi, a province east of Bangkok, is a center for cutting and polishing Burmese gems. The mines there are mostly played out.

Stones were also imported from Sri Lanka, Australia, Africa, and South America for cutting and setting into jewelry. By the mid-1980s, Thailand had become one of the world's major gemcutting centers, and the craftsmanship of Thai gemcutters was widely recognized. At one time an estimated 500,000 Thais made their living in the gem business.

Thailand is a major diamond cutting center. These most diamonds are cut in India, China, and Thailand, were skilled labor is cheap. Many dealers buy diamonds in Bangkok. The trade for rough and polished stones revived in Belgium after World War II but the crafts of cutting and polishing moved from Belgium to India, Thailand and Israel and most recently to China. There are also large numbers of cutters in Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

The world’s largest polished and cut diamond—the Golden Jubilee Diamond— was given to Thailand’s King Bhumibol to commemorate his 50th year on the throne. In 1996, the king was presented with a 546-carat yellow diamond with 148 facet, by a groups of local businessmen that included a gem trader, department store owner and banking family. The Golden Jubilee Diamond was mounted on the Royal Scepter. It is not known how much the diamond cost.

South Sea pearls measuring up 15 mm (.6 inch) and valued at $20,000 eac are produced in from the Gulf of Thailand by the Naga Pearl Company. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest cultured pearl was the 138.25-carat pearl taken near Samui Island in Thailand in January 1988. In 1997, an extremely rare 232-carat orange pearl was found off of Phuket.

Melo melo pearls, see Vietnam

Jade

At one time about half of the world's jadeite passed through Chiang Mai. Although jadeite is smuggled in from Burma, the green jade is traded openly within local Thai laws. In the 1980s many of the buyers and sellers were gun-totting Chinese. They bargain in large warehouses, and have traditionally made their bids with hand signals underneath a towel. Many of the stones are flown to Hong Kong, where payment, less a 7 percent commission, is telexed to the smugglers once the goods are in hand. " [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, September 1987 ╝]

For the jade houses in Hong Kong, a hotel owner told National Geographic: "It is the perfect business, almost without risk. The house puts up little money, doesn't do the smuggling , doesn't own the jade, is in no personal or financial danger, and gets rich from the 7 percent." ╝

See Jade, Burma.

In the early 1990s the Chaing Mai jade trade was controlled by five main Chinese Thai syndicates and a number of small traders. One trader told Smithsonian magazine: "Suppose I can get 100 bangles, each worth 1,000 Hong Kong dollars, that's H.K. $100,000, but I need a 25 percent profit, so I offer H.K. $75,000. Of course, if I'm lucky I might get 100 pieces each worth H.K $1,500 or even $2,000. That's where the gamble comes in." [Source: Timothy Green, Smithsonian magazine]

Rubies and Sapphires

In the 1980s and 90s Thai gem dealers for all intents and purposes had a monopoly on the ruby and sapphire market. "In addition to cutting and marketing Myanmar's smuggled goods and their own rubies and sapphires, " Fred Ward wrote in National Geographic , "Thais pay off both the Khmer Rouge and the Thai Army to allow them to mine in Cambodia, Exclusive contracts at first guaranteed that Thai dealers got Vietnam's new rubies. Traveling Thai buyers scoop up Australia's sapphires, either on the spot or by attempting to buy a miner's entire annual production. Long-standing contracts ensure that Sri Lanka's gems end up with the Thais. Only the miners in Montana resist exporting their sapphires." [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991 ╔]

Most of the gem factories that deal rubies and sapphires are located in Bangkok and Chanthaburi. Sometimes the gems are sawed into angular geometric shapes but usually they are shaped into round, oval or octagonal shapes with diamond impregnated grinding wheels. They are then polished with extraordinarily fine diamond grit. In the 1990s Thai cutters charged between 30 cents and two dollars a carat to process stones. Workers earned two to five dollars a day. Collectively they cut rubies and sapphires worth more than half a billion dollars a year.╔

To reach their position of dominance Ward wrote: "The Thais saw an opportunity and made the most of it. Gem dealers persuaded the government to drop important and export taxes to create a climate of growth. Then they systematically built a market to supply global buyers with a huge variety of polished stones and finished jewelry. Combined with luxury hotels and a nonstop entertainment district catering to very whim, the selling package is irresistible."╔

The Thais are not the most up front and honorable gem merchants that ever walked the planet. Some dealers label their Vietnamese stones as Burmese "ensuring and instant—and unwarranted—profit.” A Thai gem dealer told a socialist Tanzanian official who was worried about outsiders profiting from his country's rubies and sapphires: "We never exploit the poor in the gem trade. We only exploit the rich.╔

Many of the rubies in Thailand come from across the borders in Burma and Cambodia. Some also come from Vietnam.

Thais and the Sri Lankan Sapphire Market

In the 1980s Thai gem dealers convinced the Sri Lankans their colorless sapphires were worthless and bought the stones for 10 to 30 cents a carat. Later they heated the same stones to brilliant blues and yellows and sold them sold for thousands of dollars. [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991 ╔]

Later Sri Lanka withdrew Thai dealers exclusive buyer status for sapphires. One Sri Lankan official told National Geographic: "We have to get control of our own gems. That means buying furnaces and training people to heat, cut, and sell gems here instead of letting the Thais make all the value added profits." Such independence was difficult when the Thais controlled the market.╔

A few years ago, according to one story, a prominent Bangkok gem dealer announced that he intended to heat treat sapphires in Sri Lanka. After learning that jealous dealers had taken out a contract on his life, he quickly dropped the project.╔

When the owner of an Australian mine said he wanted to open a cutting operation in Sri Lanka, the Thai buyers dropped the prices they paid for his sapphires 30 percent overnight. "I've been mining sapphires for 14 years," he said, and I'm almost out of business."╔

Thai Police and the Saudi Gem Scandal

One of the worst scandals in Thai history involved the theft of $20 million worth of jewels by a Thai servant from a palace owned by the Saudi Arabian royal family. Some of the jewels were family treasures hundreds of years old. [Source: William Branigin, the Washington Post, August 30, 1994]

The 200 pound cache of jewelry was stolen in 1989 from the home of Prince Faisal bin Fahd, the son of King Fahd, while the prince and his wife were on a three-month vacation. The Thai servant, Kriangkrai Techamong, was arrested in Thailand and the jewelry was recovered by Thai police in Bangkok, but then mysteriously taken to a Bangkok hotel for two days before being transferred to the police station.

When the jewels were returned to Saudi Arbai, about 80 percent of the items were still missing and most of the rest were fakes. The most valuable pieces were believed to have been taken by high-ranking police officers after the jewels were recovered and before they were taken to Saudi Arabia. For the crime, Kriangkrai was sentenced to five years in prison and released after two years a seven months for good behavior.

In 1994, many of the jewels were turned in anonymously under a no-questions-asked agreement. Among the items still missing at that time were a "priceless" 50-carat blue diamond, a necklace of very rare green diamonds, "rubies the size of chicken-eggs," and a $2 million bracelet with a huge blue sapphire.

The Saudi's have little doubt that high-ranking Thai police officials were involved in the theft. The stolen blue sapphire and some stolen pearls, according to one Saudi investigator, were made into a necklace worn by the wife of a senior police general at a party in 1992. The largest cache of stolen jewelry was turned in the day after criminal charges were dropped against a senior police general and the former national police chiefs. The incident resulted in a ban on Thai guest workers to Saudi Arabia and a decline in Saudi tourism in Thailand.

Murder, Curses and the Saudi Gem Scandal

The Saudi jewels are believed to be possessed with a Bedouin curse and the scandal is thought to have claimed the lives of six people, including the wife and son of a jeweler who were found beaten to death in a Mercedes found on a Bangkok highway in what appeared to be an attempt to fake a car accident.

Among the others who appeared to have died as a result of the scandal were three Saudi diplomats who gunned down on the same day in February 1990, and a high-profile Saudi businessman who disappeared shortly afterwards. None of these crimes were solved; the Saudis, some investigators believe, possess important information relating to the case. The Saudi official investigating the case always carried a Smith & Wesson 38 with a "Glaser Safety Slug" (a bullet with a plastic tip with steel pellets that explodes in the body).

Saudi investigators were later told the Saudi businessman was abducted by police, interrogated in a hotel and then taken to the countryside were he was killed and his body was burned. A police lieutenant was charged in the murder but the charges were later dropped.

The jeweler, whose wife and son were murdered, is a key suspect in the theft of the jewels. Well-connected with the police, he is accused with having received much of the jewelry with the purpose of selling or resetting the valuable gems. In the summer of 1994, he turned up after a six month disappearance, saying he had been kidnapped by police.

Sacred Emerald Buddha of Thailand

The Sacred Emerald Buddha is one of the largest carved emeralds in the world, sculptured and presented to the world in the year 2006, by its owners Primagem, a Thailand-based company, founded by an American gemstone dealer Jeffrey Bergman. The origin of the name Sacred Emerald Buddha is self explanatory, as the sculpture in emerald represents the figure of Lord Buddha, the enlightened one, venerated by millions of Buddhists around the world, in the standing posture, known in the Thai Language as "Harm Yhard" which according to tradition symbolizes his admonition to his family members to stop quarrelling among themselves. [Source: internetstones.com *^*]

Paul Dorsey wrote in The Nation, “The sheer scale of the Abhaya Emerald Buddha - 15.4 centimetres in height and nearly 2,621 carats - appears certain to secure it a place among the world's great gems. Its closest known rival is the Emerald Unguentarium, part of the Habsburg-Lorraine Household Treasury kept in Vienna, which is 400 carats lighter. Four centuries ago Emperor Ferdinand III turned down fortunes in gold and pearls that were offered for his Unguentarium, and the owner of the Abhaya Emerald Buddha is today similarly waiving off head-spinning bids, determined that it belongs to the ages and to all of humanity. At any rate, given the altruism invested in its creation, any talk of value is brushed aside as merely callous. [Source: Paul Dorsey, The Nation, June 8, 2012]

Thailand is also the home of another internationally renowned "Emerald Buddha" which perhaps may be the most revered Buddha Image in the world, that was believed to bring legitimacy and prosperity to anyone who possessed it, and thus became the symbol and source of power of the monarchy in the Indochina region particularly in Thailand, and Laos. The Emerald Buddha had provided legitimacy and protection to the kings of the Chakri dynasty, the rulers of modern Thailand. Today the sacred emerald Buddha the object of veneration of the entire Thai nation, is housed in the temple complex of Wat Phra Kaeo (the temple of the emerald Buddha), which is part of the Thai Grand Palace, built in 1782 by King Rama I, who founded the new capital city of Bangkok. The sacred emerald Buddha previously thought to be made of emerald, and later jade, is now known to be actually made up of green jasper, and represents the Buddha in the sitting posture, widely known as the "Lotus Position" in which the legs are crossed, and measures 48.3 cm across the lap, and 66 cm high from base to top. *^*

History of the Sacred Emerald Buddha of Thailand

The modern Sacred Emerald Buddha sculpture that weighed 2,620 carats was carved from a much larger natural emerald crystal that weighed 3,600 carats and discovered in one of the emerald producing countries of Africa in the year 1994. The country of origin in Africa is disputed, but could be anyone of the following emerald producing countries :- Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, Madagascar or Mozambique. Out of these the most significant producers of emeralds are Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe emeralds are generally smaller in size, less than 0.5 carat, but larger stones are heavily flawed. Zambian emeralds are larger, with good clarity, but much darker with a distinct bluish-cast like the emeralds produced in the Chivor mines of Colombia. The "Sacred Emerald Buddha" too has a distinct bluish-cast, and thus Zambia might be the possible source of the enormous emerald crystal. [Source: internetstones.com *^*]

The 3,600-carat emerald crystal discovered in Africa, eventually reached Thailand, the hub of the gem and jewelry trade in southeast Asia, by September 1994, in search of a suitable buyer. Several dealers saw the massive emerald and were impressed by its size and quality, and offered to buy the gemstone with a view of cutting it into smaller pieces, and producing several processed emeralds. However, one dealer who saw the stone realized that it was a special crystal, and wanted to maximize its potential, by preserving it as a single piece. He went after the stone and after several months of intense negotiations was successful in beating his competitors and acquiring the stone for himself. He studied the crystal for a long time and finally decided that the best way to bring out the full potential of the stone was by carving it into a desirable shape. After almost an year long quest for the best subject matter for the carving, during which many suggestions were considered and rejected, it was finally decided after taking into consideration the shape of the crystal, and the present destination of the crystal, Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, that the best subject matter for the carving would be a standing Buddha image. Then followed a period of research studying the different postures of the standing Buddha, and finally the standing Buddha posture known as the "Harm Yhard", which signifies Lord Buddha's admonition to family members to stop quarreling among themselves, was chosen.

Carving the Sacred Emerald Buddha of Thailand

The next step was to look out for an experienced gemstone carver who could transform the gemstone into the selected subject matter. It was realized that the potential sculptor should not only have the dexterity to carry out the task, but also have previous experience in carving Buddha images. Thus it became necessary to search within the Asian sub-region where carving of Buddha statutes in different media such as granite, jadeite, sapphire and other material had been practiced over the centuries. There were many experienced jadeite Buddha image carvers in China and Burma, two ancient sources of Jadeite in the world, but both locations seem to have complicated security issues. Eventually it was decided that the best solution would be to look for an experienced jadeite Buddha carver in Thailand itself. The owners of the emerald made an extensive search covering all the jadeite carving factories, situated in the different gemstone processing centers of the country such as Chanthaburi, Mae Sai, Chiang Mai, and Mae Sot, and finally chose two of the most experienced jadeite carvers, whose abilities were further tested by making them carve prototype images in jadeite and low grade aquamarine, which belongs to the same class of minerals called beryl. Finally, it was decided to entrust the task of carving the Buddha image, to 36-year old Aung Nyein, a Burmese national who had been living in Thailand for almost 16 years, and a master carver with over 20 years experience in carving jadeite Buddha images. [Source: internetstones.com *^*]

“To sculpt the stone was a risky job given emerald's brittleness. Aung Nyein is a Burmese who had long before fled Myanmar for Mae Sot, where he was renowned as a jade carver. It soon became apparent that the 3,900-carat emerald would lose fully a third of its weight as it was pared down to the desired form. The owner shrugged off the considerable reduction in monetary value, says Cooper. "He was motivated by the knowledge that in other hands it was most certainly going to be cut up into pieces and sold off, ending up as somewhat anonymous items of jewellery. He felt that something so rare must be preserved." [Source: Paul Dorsey, The Nation, June 8, 2012]

On December 5, 2005, an "auspicious day", Aung Nyein began his work, drawing inspiration from the subtle features of the mammoth 15th-century Buddha in Sukhothai and a recent Lanna-style bronze installed alongside the Mekong River in Chiang Saen. Two months later he was finished.

Aung Nyein set about his assignment with great enthusiasm and dedication after several weeks of intensive study of the emerald crystal under high intensity lights, taking measurements, and drawing sketches. After more than a week of sculpturing, that involved measuring, marking, cutting and grinding, a distinct Buddha image began to take shape from the rough green crystal. The sculpturing continued until the finer details of the statute were brought out one by one, which was indeed a tedious and time-consuming job. Having finished the sculpturing with maximum perfection up to the minutest of details, the next formidable task was the polishing of the rough statute, in order to bring out its brilliance. The polishing started with extra fine sandpaper then medium-grade diamond powder and finally the finest-grade diamond powder, which resulted in a high-gloss finish on the surface of the image. *^*

Aung completed his assignment in February 2006, and the finished product was indeed a masterpiece in sculpturing with perfect and well proportioned artistic features and aesthetic beauty. Primagem the proud owners of this artistic masterpiece then obtained independent laboratory certification for the product, from the Gemological Institute of Thailand (GIT) and Gem Research SwissLab (GRS). The completed "Sacred Emerald Buddha" image had a weight of 2,620 carats. *^*

How Much is the Abhaya Emerald Buddha Be Worth?

Paul Dorsey wrote in The Nation, “Just how much might the Abhaya Emerald Buddha be worth? It's a question Cooper and evidently the owner would rather avoid, regarding such evaluations as "vulgar". A press release issued by the organisers of the 2007 Dubai International Art and Antique Fair - where the statuette was displayed for the first time - claimed it was for sale at US$5 million (Bt157 million). It also named the owner as Bangkok's Sidhartha Gallery. Cooper says that's completely incorrect. [Source: Paul Dorsey, The Nation, June 8, 2012]

"The gallery was representing it, but I don't recall them claiming ownership. I believe they had the better connections to this particular fair and that was why they were fronting it. More importantly, the Abhaya Emerald Buddha was not for sale and certainly not at a particular price. There has never been a public price put on it - that would be stupid for anyone selling such a piece."

While in Dubai the statue was examined for the British TV show "Antique Roadshow", Cooper notes, "and they just said it was 'priceless' - as in they didn't know what sort of value to put on it because they had never seen anything remotely like it." He stresses that the statuette will not be offered for sale in the foreseeable future, so the word "priceless" applies literally. And if, in the distant future, the owner decides to "pass it on to another caretaker" - as regional terminology for the sale of Buddha images would have it - "it's pretty unlikely he'd let it go to someone who was going to keep it in their house to themselves. He's more concerned about its legacy, now that he sees the possibilities for the impact it can have." More than likely it will end up in a public shrine or a major museum.

Museums around the world are on the proposed itinerary for the Abhaya Emerald Buddha. Media presentations are being planned for New York and other cities. "This sculpture is at the beginning of a long and amazing journey that will take it around the world to many places, to be de-encrypted by many people - long after we have all shuffled off the mortal coil," Cooper and Butel write. "It demands to be shared."

Appraisals and certification were obtained from gemology institutes in Thailand and the US and a lab in Switzerland. Barbara Wheat of the International Colored Stone Association found that the icon's "calming" green "radiated a sense of power and peace". "This is the largest single emerald crystal I have ever held," said Omri Hartavi of Perfect Emerald Co, lauding the owner. "Most dealers would have sliced it up and gone for maximum yield, resulting in many large cut emeralds rather than one huge historic carving. Without a doubt, this decision took a lot of courage and contributes to the intrinsic value of the piece."

Abhaya Emerald Buddha, the Taleban and World Peace

Paul Dorsey wrote in The Nation, The :enormous emerald, unearthed in Africa after perhaps two million years and reincarnated in Thailand as an image of the Lord Buddha, has been given the mission of promoting global peace and begun what its admirers liken to a spiritual journey. The statuette will tour the world, going on public display in the hope that it will convey a message of tolerance. It was the religious intolerance of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taleban government that led in 2001 to the dynamiting of the towering twin Buddhas carved centuries ago in the Bamiyan cliff-side. [Source: Paul Dorsey, The Nation, June 8, 2012]

That despicable crime against culture was foremost in the mind of the American who bought the gigantic Zambian emerald. He then commissioned a Myanmarese artisan to sculpt the image of a standing Buddha into it. The abhaya pose (baang haarm yaard in Thai) was deliberately chosen - the Buddha raises a hand to implore families to stop quarrelling.

Paving the way for the Abhaya Emerald Buddha's introduction to the world, Cameron Cooper and Pascal Butel have written a book about it titled "An Emerald Encryption". The man who hired them to write the book - the same American who brought the emerald to Thailand to be sculpted in 2004 - remains anonymous due to security concerns. They refer to him only as "the commissioner". Shocked by the loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas, he resolved in a sense to "replace" them with an icon far smaller in scale yet equally dazzling, and much more accessible.

Butel waxes poetic, ascribing words to the newly reborn Buddha: "My eyes look swollen. You may understand that if I were not a Buddha I would have cried ... I am simply showing you how to reveal your own saintliness without any cult to follow. I am global and approachable by all faiths. "I am the largest emerald-carving healing instrument in the history of humanity for all nations. Those who take care of me will be blessed above all ... People who see me once will never forget me."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 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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