Behind much of the dazzling jewellery prized by Chennaiites lies the craftsmanship of the goldsmiths on NSC Bose Road. However, all is not well with them. Many have left the profession due to a combination of factors, most notably fluctuating gold prices and the resultant decline in orders, increasing preference for bullion investment and difficult working conditions.
A sense of despondency is reported from other hubs for the trade as well. For instance, at Edapalayam Street, M. Kumar recalls how until a few decades ago, customers used to directly approach goldsmiths for specific designs. “Now, we mainly serve jewellers. But even their volume of purchases has come down. In four years, the number of monthly orders has halved from 100,” he says.
Mr. Kumar’s workplace still retains some of the buzz of years past with workers busy in various stages of the job. One draws designs and make aluminium and wax casting. Another places aluminium design pieces into a sand-filled mould. Melted gold is poured on the print left by the design and the mould is clamped shut. Within seconds, the gold solidifies and the casting is removed for further embellishment. It takes three days to make a simple pair of earrings.
Over 20,000 goldsmiths from various parts of the country work in the area, giving shape to traditional Tamil and Bengali designs. A piece of gold passes through the hands of at least five persons for moulding, finishing, stone setting, polishing and soldering before it emerges as a sparkling piece of jewellery. Fine gold is alloyed with copper to strengthen it.
D. Jayagopi, secretary, Park Town Gold and Silver Workers Welfare Association points out that the profession has also become increasingly unprofitable. Earlier, jewellers or customers brought gold to make jewels. Now, goldsmiths have to buy the gold, craft the jewellery and sell the product to jewellers. A minimum of Rs.5 lakh is essential to stay afloat. “For every one gram of jewel sold, we get paid for 50 milligram. The decreasing pay has led to labour shortage,” he adds. Amjad Ali, president of Bengali Goldsmiths Association, says goldsmiths get only a small percentage — 2.5 per cent — of the wastage and making charges levied by jewellers on the final product.
The arduousness of the profession also discourages many from continuing in it. Mr. Jayagopi says, “We work for over 12 hours, sit by the fire to melt gold and take home an average monthly salary of only Rs. 15,000.” The profession particularly is harsh on the eyes, says Mr. Ali. Several Tamil ‘acharis,’ experts in traditional forms of jewellery, have turned to driving autorickshaws or waiting tables at hotels and fast food eateries due to plummeting salaries and the unhygienic environment.
“People sweep the streets and sometimes, collect up to 100 mg of gold dust, enough for a kunthumani. But, our lives are miserable,” says Mr. Jayagopi.