A market like you've never sheen

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Thailand is one of the biggest hubs of gem-cutting and polishing in the world. The hills in Chanthaburi, a quaintly named coastal province abutting the Gulf of Thailand, have always buried treasure in them. Now, people flock there to buy and sell it.

An odd market, is Talad Ploy, where the buyers are seated behind desks and sellers mill around them. | Sreedeep Bhattacharya

If you go there on a weekday, the Talad Ploy gem market is sleepy. A straggle of dealers dawdle about in their permanently owned shops on Si Chan Road, near the intersection with Thetsaban Road, at the heart of Thailand's Chanthaburi city.

Come Friday morning, and the place transforms into the vibrant gemstone exchange capital of the world, as buyers, sellers and brokers converge from all over.

 

 

Talad Ploy exported gemstones worth $650 million in 2012, and about half of those were Sapphire. Most of these traders have their export offices in Bangkok. But the mining, cutting, heating and polishing works take place in Chanthaburi, which has been since the 15th Century.

 

 

 

As gemstone deposits dwindled after the advent of mechanised mining, Thai gem producers developed the esoteric art of heat treatment and glass-filling of sapphires to get better clarity and colour. This method was invented by French jewellers and has been used in Europe for a long while. In the 1960s, this technique of ‘cooking’ stones was brought from Europe to Chanthaburi (which means "Lady Chan, who wears a pan on her head).

 

 

 

While this method of treating stones is considered unethical and usually practised in secret, it refurbished the gem trade on such a massive scale that Thai businessmen now travel to places like Sri Lanka and Africa, bring back ordinary varieties of roughs and non-gemstone variety corundum, to convert them into brilliant looking gemstones.

As you go around in the market, you can find sapphires sold for as low as $2-3 per carat. Are they untreated or unheated? The price is an indication that they have indeed been treated.

 

 

 

Just behind the market, there are by lanes where you find scores of ‘burners’. These are mainly treating centres which operate without signboards, but the local traders know these places. Thai gem producers developed the esoteric art of heat treatment and glass-filling (diffusion-treated, beryllium cooked or lead glass–treated Sapphire locally known as Paw Mai) of sapphires, to remain relevant in the global market.

 

 

Not buying the popular opinion on heating-treatment, a craftsman says, “So what if we enhance stones? What value do stones have anyway? ‘Roughs’ look just like ordinary pebbles. We, the artisans, identify them, brute, cut and polish them, and add various values in them. Enhancing a stone is value addition. Period.”

 

 

 

The market customs here are a little quirky. The place has many buildings, where those who occupy booked tables under hanging lamps are not sellers, but buyers who come from far off places like India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They pay a price, typically between 60,000-75,000 Baht to book a table. The sellers, who stand around these tables, are generally ‘brokers’ of bigger businessmen who themselves do not come here. The place is bustling with buyers, sellers and local street vendors selling both ‘roughs’ and streetfood.

 

 

 

The buyers, armed with their tweezers, glasses and other equipment to appraise the stones, sit at their desks displaying small cards that mention the exact kind of stones they are in the market for (Sapphire, Tourmaline, etc), and, occasionally, their preferred per-carat rate too.

 

 

Taking a lunch break from all the 'buying', a middle-aged lady offers some profound food for thought about the selection process: “Each cut and polished stone is different, and a new piece of art. You need an eye to appreciate, love and know it. A beautiful piece of stone is like an enchanting but mysterious woman, you have to understand her character and the fire within.”

And just like with love, language is no barrier. Deals are struck after negotiations on the calculator. Though some of the buyers understand the value of speak Thai fluently.

 

 

The price of the gemstone typically includes an added commission of 5-15% that goes to the owner of the building. These owners also ensure that a clean and proper deal happens without fake or heated stones being sold in the market.

 

 

 

One of the owners, an old hefty bearded Afghan dressed in white kurta named Muhammad Khan, waxes lyrical about his job: “Gemstones are sacred; they are beautiful like flowers, of different colours... to do this business you have to be in love with stones, they are labours of love”.

 

 

 

Sellers, who are often miners themselves, run from table to table to know the prices being offered and then relay the information to their bosses. And it's a rough game — sellers might on occasion try to get hold of the buyer before they sit at the desk so that the commission to the owners of the table spaces can be avoided: “The owners give these stones to us, in the weekend we run from table to table, haggling with these businessmen and we often fail to sell the stones, it is a back-breaking job, but the daily wage is good, and the rest of the week we work in the mines or in the plantations as labours.”

 

 

 

A young guy named Ali, who hails from Peshawar in Pakistan, talks about the business with great enthusiasm and politeness: “Bookish knowledge won’t work here; you have to be in the trade to know about gems. I don’t come from a gem-trading family; I took my gemmology course in Peshawar and worked there in the trade for two years. In Thailand, I started my business with a capital of $2,000. There was an initial period of ‘struggling’ in the business for a year and after that things started getting better. In the last four years, I have learnt a lot”.

Log bahut izzat kartein hain [people respect us a lot],” he says, adding that he gets to travel to various parts of the world.

 

 

 

Ali negotiates simultaneously with a lady over a packet of Tourmaline. He offers her a bulk price for the whole packet. She replies that the prices of the small ones were reasonable, but the larger ones required more. Ali disagrees, and the negotiation breaks off.

 

 

 

Most migrant buyers do not go back home to sell these stones anymore. Coloured gemstones such as Rubelite, Aquamarine, and Tourmaline, etc., are in high demand in China. Chinese buyers prefer bright colours like red, pink, blue and green, so before he embarks on one of his regular trips there, Ali tends to buy only such coloured stones to avoid losses.

 

 

 

The money is paid at the end of the day, or when all stones are tested to be original — sometimes only after a week.

 

An odd market, is Talad Ploy, where the buyers are seated behind desks and sellers mill around them. | Sreedeep Bhattacharya

 

 

Chanthaburi is a cosmopolitan space inhabited by many communities, including the two hundred-year-old migrant Vietnamese Catholic Christians, who are mostly gem dealers and goldsmiths.

 

 

 

This stunning silver statue of Mother Mary, which stands within the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary, was a gift to the church by the local Vietnamese Christian community. The blue in her cloak is composed of 300,000 Sapphires originated from Chanthaburi and Kanchanaburi province, while the white part of the dress is made of hundreds of white Sapphires from Sri Lanka. Several hundred Rubies and gold and green enamels adorn the statue, which stands on a blue globe embedded with blue, yellow and orange Sapphires.

It must have been quite a day at one of the oldest gem markets in the world.

(Photographs by Sreedeep Bhattacharya)

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