Thailand's Jewelry Industry • A Black Paper

1 June 1990
By Richard Hughes
Thailand's Jewelry Industry • A Black Paper

This is what happens when someone who knows little about jewelry is asked to write something about jewelry. Richard Hughes tosses off a cheeky description of Thailand's jewelry manufacturing, circa 1990.

Thailand’s Jewelry Industry: A ‘black paper’ on the state of the trade 

To understand the present and to predict the future, we must study the past. Or so we were told in those boring history classes that everybody with any brains either skipped out on or slept through. History professors tell us that the world would be a much better place if everybody studied history like they do. It'd be a mighty boring place too, with everyone running round in sweaters and smoking pipes in profound contemplation.

The trouble with becoming a student of history is that it often requires study. Most people are just too busy barking after the Baht to be burying their noses in history books. So for the benefit of those readers who have time only for counting beans, welcome to Dickie's Quickie Jewelry History of Thailand, where all that ails the local jewelry trade will be revealed, in living black-and-white, no less.

When you look at a piece of jewelry, what is it you see, first and foremost? Is it "a 14-karat gold ring with a 1.57 carat oval ruby and 30 points of diamond melee (nicely set, a good tight mounting, and hey, check out those findings)?" Of course not.

First off, let me say that I know a fair bit about gemstones, but virtually nothing about jewelry manufacturing. This puts me in the unique position of being able to pontificate at will about the ills of Thailand's jewelry industry, without fear of retribution, for I can always claim that I didn't know a bloody thing about the subject to begin with. Let's get started.

Lesson 1: Jewelry Design Problems

In my humblest opinion, the crux of the biscuit as far as Thailand's jewelry industry is a lack of creativity in the design sector. And it is the design which is the most crucial element in a piece of jewelry. While many might argue otherwise, stop and ask yourself the following question: when you look at a piece of jewelry, what is it that you see, first and foremost? Is it "a 14-karat gold ring with a 1.57 carat oval ruby and 30 points of diamond melee (nicely set, a good tight mounting, and hey, check out those findings)?" Of course not. Each of those items are only pieces of the whole. So what do you see? The basic design concept – the manner in which the designer has integrated various pieces into an attractive whole. It is the designer, not the lapidary, the goldsmith nor the stone setter, whose contribution is the key to the success of a piece. I am not saying that good workmanship is of little importance, but only that the design is the key.

In poorly designed jewelry, that "whole" too often contains a whole lot too much. The art of jewelry (it is an art, not a craft), like other arts, is best kept simple, and the best designs are brilliant in their ability to create a beguiling image with the simplest of elements. Less is more in jewelry design, but few commercial manufacturers understand this; the result is a cluttered appearance.

The cluttered appearance extends beyond the design of individual pieces. Take a walk through Bangkok's hotels, arcades and streets. Look at the displays in jewelry shop windows. Although jewelry involves selling the rarest of nature's creations, window displays too often look like supermarket shelves. How does one emphasize the precious and rare nature of an item when dozens of identical pieces are stacked atop one another. Better shops understand this. But while their window displays feature far fewer pieces, each piece is selected and exhibited with care. And the jewelry on display is often far simpler in terms of the number of stones used, but creates greater visual impact.

Without looking at the companies' names, see how many magazine ads feature identical styles and designs of jewelry. How many ads would be indistinguishable were it not for the company name?

Since you're obviously reading this magazine, then you must have opened the pages. Continue to do so, and also check out the other jewelry magazines that have sprung up in Bangkok over the past two years. Concentrate on comparing the ads to the articles. Without looking at the companies' names, see how many ads feature identical styles and designs of jewelry. How many ads would be indistinguishable were it not for the company name? How many ads feature several pieces of virtually the same style in the same ad. What have we learned? Why the Bangkok jewelry industry is currently mired in mediocrity, that's what we've learned.

First of all, there is a lack of creative design talent in Bangkok's jewelry industry. Examples? Many local jewelry magazines feature articles showcasing local designs. Almost without exception, they contain the following elements:

  1. The basic design concept is based on some sort of floral motif, usually a flower or leaf. Frankly, I find this boring – no I take that back – incredibly boring. Why is it that the designs of jewelry pieces costing sometimes thousands of dollars feature design patterns no different than those found on ladies' underwear? Taking a risk means making a leopard or bird instead of a flower. Avant garde in local jewelry design parlance means doing "invisibly-set" jewelry that is just as ugly today as it was 60 years ago when it was first developed.
  2. For some reason, local designers are stuck on the idea that a big stone has to go in the center of the piece and then a lot of little diamonds go around the outside. Ugh! The only one who benefits from this is De Beers.

Why is it that the local designs are so lacking? Here comes the history lesson. As a country develops, there appear to be several distinct phases. A good analogy is the development of a child. Newly born, the child cannot develop on its own; it requires complete outside support from the parents. Eventually by watching, feeling, tasting, hearing and smelling its surroundings, the child learns about its environment. Speech and motor skills are steadily developed by observation of others, with the baby trying its best to imitate what it sees others doing, namely walking and talking. As the child develops into a teenager, these skills are constantly refined, to the point where adulthood is reached.

For some reason, local designers are stuck on the idea that a big stone has to go in the center of the piece and then a lot of little diamonds go around the outside. Ugh! The only one who benefits from this is De Beers.

In my book, adulthood represents the crucial stage where true original thinking begins. An adult no longer merely copies slavishly what older and wiser people are doing; instead, he/she has enough confidence in his own abilities to try doing something new. This concept of self confidence is crucial. Adults apply their own world view and experiences to the tasks at hand, rather than simply copying those of others. The result is something unique, something new. In the world of jewelry, it's sad but true; we see far too little that's actually new.

Welcome to gemstone hangers

Bad taste and conservatism in jewelry design is not something unique to Thailand. For additional examples, one need look no further than the auction catalogs of the world's most famous auction houses. This brings us to Dickie's First Law of Jewelry Design, which states that…

The total price of the individual stones in a piece of jewelry is inversely proportional to the quality of the design itself

What this means is that, for the most part, good stones are set in lousy designs. Most of what we see in auction catalogs is better termed gemstone hangers rather than jewelry, for the purpose appears solely to provide a means of mounting some massive bauble or baubles around the neck, wrist or finger of the wearer. Traders admit this – they call the stuff "mountings.”

For the most part, good stones are set in lousy designs… Traders admit this; they call the stuff "mountings."

Need further proof? Ask yourself this question. If the stones were unmounted and sold as a group, and the gold and labor value added to the total for the sale of the loose stones, would the amount approach the value of the finished piece of jewelry? If it would, that means that the design had little or no value. Now that's not what I call jewelry.

Lesson 2: Editorial & advertising: Together we grow?

Back to the ads. Do the products and companies commonly featured in the articles also show up in the ads of the same issue of the magazine? If it is a jewelry magazine published in Thailand, the chances are mighty strong that they do.

What does this tell us? It says that the editorial departments of these magazines are not separate from the advertising departments. What does this mean to you, as a reader? It means that the editorial material (i.e., articles, editorials, etc.) cannot be relied upon as being truthful, since the inclusion of such material is often dependent on whether or not an ad is placed by the company whose products are featured. So why read the magazine at all? Good question. Save yourself the bother and just get a catalog straight from the company.

The Devil's Excuse: "Many people like ordinary designs"

Over and over, when I ramble on about the pitiful state of local jewelry designs, I hear the same refrain: "Some people like that stuff. They won't buy this weird shit you see in fashion magazines." Well the only problem with that argument is that the weird shit one sees in fashion magazines becomes the status quo ten years later.

Bangkok's jewelry industry today… is businesspeople designing jewelry.

Anything new is always a risk, and 90% of the population will rush headlong to the familiar when shown something new. That is until they see their favorite movie star or T.V. personality wearing it. Then they rush headlong after the latest style. Fact is that 10% of the population sets the trends for the other 90%. The problem comes in identifying who the ten-percenters are, not the ninety-percenters.

Art is for Artists

Picture this. Artists are suddenly made managing directors of all companies involved in the widget-export trade. Why? Because they use widgets and so have decided that they can sell widgets just as good as the next man. So what is the result? First off, the corporate headquarters are completely redesigned so that many hallways lead nowhere. Why? To give employees new experiences, of course. Each room is given a name, such as Armadillo's Delight or Chubb in Repose, No. 2. Mandatory 15-minute channeling breaks are provided twice daily, and any employee who so desires will be allowed open-ended paid vacations if they ever feel the need to find themselves. Meetings are never scheduled, but are spur-of-the-moment jobs when the inspiration strikes. Widget prices are no longer based on production costs and market conditions, but on whether the buyer is giving off good vibes.

Bangkok's jewelry industry today is not a lot different from what I've just described, except that it's businesspeople designing jewelry. One look around any of Bangkok's art galleries and/or exhibitions reveals that there is no shortage of creative art talent. Look at the local fashion industry, which is extremely inventive. Or costume jewelry, which shows more imagination in its design than 99.9% of all the so-called "fine" jewelry in Bangkok. It's a direct result of Thailand's business people designing jewelry, not Thailand's artists. Until the local art community is integrated into the jewelry design field we can expect to see a continuation of poor-quality copies done in an extremely conservative fashion. This brings us to integration – Dickie's Final Law of Jewelry Design and Jewelry Trading, which states that…

Jewelry arts are for artists; Jewelry trading is for traders

Follow that last rule and you can't go wrong.

R S end dingbat

Author's Afterword

This article was written at the behest of the owner of JewelSiam (1990: Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 102–104), who wanted me to write something for his new magazine. Perhaps it wasn't quite what he had in mind. In any event, I’m pleased to report that Thailand’s jewelry industry has made great strides since the time I penned this piece. Today (2019), there is some magnificent design work taking place in the Kingdom.

About the Author

Richard W. Hughes is one of the world’s foremost experts on ruby and sapphire. The author of several books and over 170 articles, his writings and photographs have appeared in a diverse range of publications, and he has received numerous industry awards. Co-winner of the 2004 Edward J. Gübelin Most Valuable Article Award from Gems & Gemology magazine, the following year he was awarded a Richard T. Liddicoat Journalism Award from the American Gem Society. In 2010, he received the Antonio C. Bonanno Award for Excellence in Gemology from the Accredited Gemologists Association. The Association Française de Gemmologie (AFG) in 2013 named Richard as one of the fifty most important figures that have shaped the history of gems since antiquity. In 2016, Richard was awarded a visiting professorship at Shanghai's Tongji University. 2017 saw the publication of Richard's Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide, arguably the most complete book ever published on a single gem species and the culmination of nearly four decades of work in gemology.

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