Thai gold goes back a long way. In the past there were extensive gold mines in Thailand. Indeed the word Siam, as Thailand was originally called, means ‘gold’ in Sanskrit; the Indians called it Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold), and the Chinese Jin Lin (Peninsula of Gold). The gold trade, which stretches back about 2000 years, was probably the first contact Thailand had with the outside world. Suphanburi (province of gold) in central Thailand and nearby Utong (plentiful gold) may have been centres of the gold industry.
Gold and Buddhism
Gold has a religious significance for Thais. In Buddhist literature, both Pali and Sanskrit, the Buddha is described as having skin of gold. A golden complexion is the eleventh of the 32 characteristics of the Buddha. Many Buddha images in Thailand are made of gold and gold leaf is stuck onto Buddha images as part of religious rituals. The largest buddha image in the world is the Golden Buddha, now housed in Wat Trimitr. It is made of pure gold and weighs over 5 tons making it worth around $61 million just for the gold.
During the Srivichai period, goldsmiths knew how to make gold foil for use in Buddhist religious ceremonies, as more and more Buddha statues were gold plated. Of the gold ornaments produced, gold beads were made in the South and Central regions, while in the Lop Buri period, various objects used in religious ceremonies and utensils were gold plated.
Sukhothai period (1249 – 1438)
The engraved slabs at Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai, illustrating the Jataka tales (which relate the previous lives of the historical Buddha), show figures wearing elaborate adornments, including necklaces and crowns. The 1292 inscription attributed to King Ramkamhaeng specifically allows free trade in silver and gold, although the wearing of gold was restricted by sumptuary laws to the nobility and free use of bold ornamentation was allowed only from the mid-19th century, under King Rama V.
During the Sukhothai period, more gold was beaten into flat, thin sheets to cover Buddha statuettes and goldsmiths knew how to goldplate large Buddha statues. Gold foil was used to plate bronze and other metallic Buddha statues. Ornaments were however simple, smooth and with minimal designs. Gold caskets and boxes with small replicas of pagodas made of gold to contain relics have been found. Gold utensils were rare.
Ayutthaya period (1350 – 1767)
During the Ayutthaya period, gold played a major role in the constructions of Buddha statues, temples and places, so much so that it was considered the Golden Age of gold. Gold foil was used to cover the spires of palaces, pagodas and finials on the roof ridges and Buddha statues.
The Ayutthayan period was the high point of Thai gold jewelry design. Nicholas Gervais, a French Jesuit missionary writing in the late 17th century was of the opinion that “Siamese goldsmiths are scarcely less skilled than ours. They make thousands of little gold and silver ornaments, which are the most elegant objects in the world. Nobody can damascene more delicately than they nor do filigree work better. They use very little solder, for they are so skilled at binding together and setting the pieces of metal that it is difficult to see the joints.”
Gold work was revived under King Rama I in Bangkok after the defeat at Ayutthaya, and foreign visitors frequently noted the enthusiasm of wealthy Thais for gold ornament. Yet this very enthusiasm may ultimately have played a part in the decline of traditional Thai gold smithing, for during the 19th century, when King Rama V became the first monarch to travel abroad, a number of foreign jewelers set up branches in Bangkok, including Faberge. Chinese immigrant goldsmiths catered to clients with less refined tastes. The Norwegian traveler Carl Bock wrote in 1888: “The manufacture of gold and silver jewelry, which is carried on to a large extent in Bangkok, is entirely in the hands of the Chinese.”
Gold Industry Today
Today gold is an important part of Thailand’s jewelry industry which is the kingdom’s second largest export. The main export destinations are Hong Kong, Japan and the United States. The export jewelery, however, is chiefly gem-set using 10, 14 and 18 karat gold settings. Thailand is the second largest jewelry exporter in the world exporting officially 100 billion bahts worth of jewelry each year although this figure probably understates the true size of the industry as a large amount is smuggled out of the country to avoid taxes.
The kingdom imports 100 tonnes of gold on average a year. The figure could go up to 150 tonnes during an economic boom. About 20-30% of imports are for re-export.
There are 60 gold wholesalers in Bangkok and Thailand has around 6000 small gold shops.
The gold mines are now exhausted but a recent discovery was made at Pichit. Owned by Australia’s Kingsgate Consolidated through its Thai subsidiary Akara Mining, the Chatree mine is one of the world’s lowest cost and most profitable operations.
There are gold shops selling necklaces and rings on nearly every main street in Phuket. The gold on sale is 99.99% pure, which is of a much higher quality than you will find in western countries. Gold is sold by weight and the unit is the Baht, the same name as the currency. One Baht is 15.2 grams. The buying and selling price of gold is quoted in the newspapers such as Bangkok Post on a daily basis and the price in the shops will be very close to this. In addition there will be a small charge for the workmanship, generally only a few hundred Baht, depending on the size and weight of the item.
These shops will quote the buy/sell price, which is often on display, and offer a genuine market as a necklace can be sold for cash, or traded in for an upgrade to a heavier weight at a later date.