A Day at the Chanthaburi Gemstone Market
Many people who visit Thailand shop for gemstones in Bangkok. But very few people have the chance to see where many of the Thai gem dealers buy their gemstones. For that you need to travel 250 kilometers south east of Bangkok to our home of Chanthaburi. This small city of about 50,000 people is the major processing and trading center for colored gemstones in southeast Asia. It is estimated that 80% of the world's supply of ruby and sapphire passes through Chanthaburi.
Chanthaburi was once famous for its ruby and sapphire mines. The mining business reached its peak in the 1960's and 70's when political events in Burma reduced the supply of Burmese ruby to a trickle. The demand for Thai gemstones was so great that by the 1980's the local mines were worked out. The gem business in Chanthaburi might have died along with mining, but the gem factories here had developed new techniques for heating gemstones to improve their color and clarity. When the local supply of ruby and sapphire started to disappear, traders began to bring colored gemstone from all over the world to be processed in Chanthaburi.
Gemstone processing in Chanthaburi is largely a cottage industry. Though there are a few large companies, most of the work is done by smaller family-owned businesses. Their expertise is in grading, cutting and polishing gemstones, not in marketing their product to the world. So a local market has developed to help the Chanthaburi factories get their gemstones into distribution. For those in the know, this market has some of the best deals in colored gemstones in the world.
The Chanthaburi gemstone market, known in Thai as the talad ploy is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from about 11 in the morning to about 6 in the evening. The main part of the market is in a narrow set of lanes at the intersection of Si Chan ("Gems Street") and Thetsaban. This neighbourhood is full of retail shops for gemstone and gemstone equipment (scales, loupes and the like). But the weekend gems market is a world unto itself. The talad ploy is a public market where anyone can come to buy and sell. But if you visit the market for the first time, you probably won't know where to begin. This is not a market where dealers display their wares and buyers browse through the goods. The commercial model here is entirely different from the local produce market a few blocks away. At the talad ploy, the buyers occupy the trading desks and the sellers circulate through the market looking for buyers.
So let's say you wanted to buy some sapphire at the market. The first thing you need to do is find a place a sit. You'll see a number of storefronts, many of them open to the street, with desks and chairs. These are trading offices and they'll be happy to provide you with space for your trading. The trading offices make their living by earning commissions on every sale. You won't know exactly what the commission is, since it's paid by the seller. But it could be as high as 15% in the most popular spots. Just remember that the commission will be factored in to the price you will pay for any gems you buy.
The next thing you need to do is let the market know what you want to buy. This is done by posting a sign (in Thai of course) on the window of the trading office or to the front of your trading desk. Sometimes the signs are fairly general, such as "tourmaline and spinel." But very often you will see buyers looking for sapphire in a specific color and size or weight.
Sellers who have gemstones that meet your requirements will stop by and show their goods.
The sellers are fairly easy to spot in the market -- they are the people with shoulder bags worn securely across their chests. Inside those bags are gemstones that may be worth several hundred thousand dollars. You might be surprised at the unassuming appearance of these sellers, dressed in t-shirts, jeans and sandals. Are these really the wealthy gem dealers of Chanthaburi? In fact they are only brokers, acting as the legal representatives of the gem owners, who rarely make an appearance in the market.
The brokers will show you what they have to offer and can answer questions about the goods, assuming you can speak enough Thai to ask. They will state an asking price, but the final price may well be only 40% of the initial price, so you'll need very good negotiating skills to get the best price. If you make an offer on some gemstones that the broker thinks might be acceptable to the owner, the gemstones will be wrapped up and taped securely with your name and price, and the broker will disappear to consult with the owner by phone. You'll usually get your answer within the hour. If you've offered a low price for the gemstones, you may get lucky if the owner has done well on other gemstones from this lot, or he needs to raise some cash quickly.
Eventually you'll get hungry, and this being Thailand, there are many food sellers right in the market. You'll see many of the same street stalls you see all over Thailand -- noodle soup, chicken or pork over rice, fresh local fruit and interesting sweets. You definitely won't go hungry.
The final stop on our tour is a new gems market building a few blocks away. This modern airconditioned building has an open trading floor and a number of private trading rooms. It even has a gemological lab on site where you can get identification reports within an hour or two. This clean and inviting trading environment looks to be the future of the gems market in Chanthaburi. But where are the buyers and sellers? The half empty trading floor stands in start contrast to the crowded streets of the old market. Traditions die very slowly in Asia, and despite the heat and the dust and crowds, the market still prefers the atmosphere of the old quarter.