My First Gemstone Buying trip to Chanthaburi, Thailand
Chanthaburi is a town about 260km South East of Bangkok. It is a well know location to buy gems of all shapes and sizes as this is a major cutting centre for South East Asia. First impressions might lead you to believe that Chanthaburi is just another town in eastern Thailand. There are Buddhist temples and traditional Thai houses, while the narrow streets are alive with the normal sound of market vendors selling fruits, vegetables, animals and… minerals.
Wait what? Make no mistake, inconspicuous Chanthaburi is the “Gem Capital” of South East Asia.
So I grab a taxi from Bangkok for the 3.5 hour long trip. The taxi costs around $80 USD and is by far the best way to travel. There are buses that leave from Bangkok but they can take up to 5 – 6 hours because they have to stop in so many places to pick people up along the way.
Once we get to Chanthaburi we check into a hotel that is very close to the Gem market. The next morning we are off to the market to see what we can find and to get a feel for the place. It is best to approach the first day with the mindset that the first day is just to get a feel for prices and quality. Try and not jump at the first thing that walks through the door, even if it is a good deal.
Chanthaburi is a very old town with a long gemstone history. The town was built because of the abundance of incredible Sapphire and Ruby that ran along the river. Chanthaburi gained its gemstone reputation as early as 1407 when the intrepid Chinese traveller Ma Huan wrote of a special place near Chanthaburi where hundreds of families sold bright clear Rubies. In 1868 the famous French explorer Henri Mouhot said, “precious stones of good quality are found in the mountains around Chanthaburi.” Expect to see many Sapphire and Rubies because of this fact.
Once the mines started to become exhausted, the local business men established international connections to import rough gemstones into Chanthaburi for cutting and selling. Chanthaburi already had a reputation with the international gem community, so the town grew from a major source of fine Sapphires and Rubies, to a global gem hub.
The first thing to do when you arrive at the market is walk around and observe all of the trading offices. These are offices where buyers come to advertise their requirements. The market is basically made up a few key people
- Buyers – Professional individuals who are interested in buying from the Chanthaburi gemstone market for the best wholesale price worldwide
- Runners – The runners are legal representatives of the owners of the gems. They show the gems to buyers and then negotiate with interested buyers
- The Assistant – The assistant is a Gem brokers representative in charge of promoting fair-trading. They provide all legal guidance for the transactions, and assists buyers in their dealings with the brokers.
- Trading Office – The owners of these establishments usually guarantee all of the items purchased by the buyer and personally checks each gem before payment is made.
When you choose a buying office, the first thing to do is let all the runners outside know what you want to buy. The assistant will approach and ask what gems in particular you are looking for. They will then write this in Thai, and post it on the window above your head. Now sit back and wait for runners to come to you.
Within a couple of minutes there were 5 or so runners around my table. All showing Rubies, Sapphire, Zircon, Garnet, Topaz and Tourmaline. Almost every commercial stone was shown to me within the first 5 minutes. The runners recognise regular buyers, so when someone new comes along, they test the waters to see if the new buyer, in this case me, knows what they are doing. They bring synthetics, treated stones and real stones with inflated prices. It takes a while, but eventually everyone gets the feeling that you know what you are talking about. This is why I said before that the first day should not be a buying day, but a knowledge day.
Once you do start buying, the process is fairly simple. A runner comes in, displays the stones they have. The buyer looks at them, asks the price to be displayed on the calculator, and then begins negotiations if interested. If someone offers the stone at 500 baht/ct, and the buyer counter offers 400 baht/ct, and if this is within the range that the owner of the stone has told the runner is acceptable, the exchange will happen there and then. If however the value is below what the owner has specified, 2 things happen.
- The assistant will take the stones, weigh them, wrap them in paper and tape them up. They will write your offer on the paper and hand it back to the runner
- The runner will then go back to the owner and ask if the price you have offered is acceptable. If you pick a few stones out of the parcel, the owner has no way of knowing which stones you have selected, because they are wrapped in paper and cannot be ripped open. The owner has to make the judgement on if they want to sell the stones or not.
If the owner accepts, the paper parcel is returned, opened and checked, and then the exchange takes place. If the paper has been tempered with or undone, the sale is void.
At the end of the day, the assistant makes up the invoice and calculates the total. The owner of the trading office gets paid by the owners of stones, depending on how much they sell. This cost is already factored into the price of the stone.
So that’s Chanthaburi. A very interesting place to visit. The atmosphere is amazing and there are plenty of shops and museums for tourists to look at. Would I recommend a tourist with no knowledge of gems to go buying in Chanthaburi? No I wouldn’t. But it is an amazing insight into the world of gem buying.