Thai gold goes back thousands of years. There were extensive gold mines in Thailand in previous years. In fact, Siam, Thailand’s original name, means ‘gold’ in Sanskrit; the Indians called it Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold), and the Chinese Jin Lin (Peninsula of Gold). The gold trade was probably what gave Thailand first contact with the outside world.
Gold and Buddhism
Gold has a great religious significance for Thais. In Buddhist literature, 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, housed in Wat Trimitr. It is made of pure gold and weighs over 5 tons, you can only imagine how much this makes this statue worth.
During the Srivichai period, goldsmiths could make gold foil to use in Buddhist ceremonies, due to the fact more and more Buddha statues were gold plated. Of the gold ornaments produced during this time, gold beads were made in the South and Central regions.
Sukhothai period (1249 – 1438)
The engraved slabs at Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai, 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. 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.
Ayutthaya period (1350 – 1767)
During the Ayutthaya period, gold was an important part of constructing 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 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. They use very little solder, they are so skilled at binding together and setting the pieces that it is difficult to see the joints.”
Gold work was revived under King Rama I after the defeat at Ayutthaya, and foreign visitors frequently noted the enthusiasm of wealthy Thais for gold ornament. However, this enthusiasm may have played a big part in the decline of traditional Thai gold smithing, because 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.
Gold Industry Today
Today gold is an important part of Thailand’s jewelry industry which is the kingdom’s second largest export. 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.
There are around 6000 small gold shops in Thailand.
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.
These shops will often display the buy/sell price, 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.