A dazzling demonstration of rich Thai heritage can be found at the newly opened SiamGems Heritage Museum
For most of us, buying a Premier League team, or flying our Lear Jet to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun, is never going to be an option. But for many of us a touch of luxury is most often found in a few select pieces of jewellery, whether they be made of treasured gold or silver, or feature precious gemstones.
Thailand has a long history with jewellery, including gold-crafting and goldsmith techniques originally introduced by Hindu settlers some 2,000 years ago, and one of the most vibrant gem markets in the world, a market which continues up to the present day. In addition to locally sourced gems—like the famous dazzling red rubies from Chanthaburi known as ‘Siamese Rubies’, and sapphires sourced from Khanchanaburi, Phecthabun and Sukhothai (among other locales)—Thailand’s centralized location in Southeast Asia has made it an ideal gateway for gemstone trading.
However, it can all seem a bit of a murky world to outsiders, full of frauds, fakes and forgeries, so a visit to the SiamGems Heritage Museum presents an ideal opportunity to shine some light on what is one of Thailand’s largest and most glamorous export earners. Opened to the general public on the 15th February this year, the museum’s principal purpose is to preserve and promote the Kingdom’s jewellery-related heritage and craftsmanship.
This rich history is fittingly represented by a state-of-the-art 21st century building that is a gem in its own right; starting with its space age exterior that grabs the eye, and continuing throughout the entire interior. The humungous 5 million baht golden elephant sculpture that greets you as you enter the glittering spacious atrium is based on a style from the early Ayutthaya kingdom, and depicts two elephants walking in Thailand’s main river—the Chao Phraya—and symbolizes eternal fortune and prosperity.
As a visitor, your tour begins with a visit into the almost, but not quite as impressive 15m-diameter cinema dome to experience a 360-degree surround-sound short film. This movie takes you through the story of the natural creation of gold and precious gems, the often back-breaking labour involved in finding them, and on to the craftsmanship that goes into the end product (including the part such jewellery plays in Thai historical culture—both royal and theatrical). It’s a fitting and obvious place to begin a journey that winds through the museum’s five themed rooms, each of which adds to the complete story.
Room 1 recounts the History of Jewellery, from the Bead Age to the Bronze Age and on to the Gold Age—some 6,000 years B.C.—when Thailand became known as Suvarnabhumi or “land of gold”. This period was followed by the Gemstone Age, when gems became the “new gold”, which leads us into the current Refining Age, where manufacturing and polishing techniques have reached a new level of perfection (Thailand’s craftsmen, famous throughout the world, excel at both these skills).
Room 2 is the Reflection Room, which uses holograms to help demonstrate the different types of cuts and shapes into which a gemstone can be fashioned. There are numerous styles, including brilliant, emerald, and cabochon cuts, as well as round, heart and pear shapes. Examples of these, and many other types, are shown and explained in detail.
Room 3 is called the Chamber of Virtue and focuses on the Nopparat belief system which Thai people have subscribed to for aeons. The nine gemstones—ruby, moonstone, zircon, emerald, yellow sapphire, diamond, blue sapphire, garnet, and chrysoberyl—are the symbol of the nine celestial beings, and are believed to bestow great fortune on their owners. Thus they are frequently used for religious and royal celebrations, decorations, and insignias.
Room 4 showcases the stunningly beautiful SiamGems Tiara of the Lady, featuring the luminous scarlet Siamese Rubies highly regarded as a royal adornment of Queens around the world. After viewing the tiara, screens on either side of the showcase are drawn back to reveal several workers busy cleaning, repairing, and making various other pieces of jewellery.
The fifth and final room is a comprehensive history and journey through every aspect of jewellery making—from the initial design, to cutting, framing, and mounting. Here you can read the historical timelines detailing the evolution of design, along with the changes in fashions that have taken place down the ages. You can also see the tools used at every stage of the design and manufacturing process and, at the end, use an interactive screen that allows you to design your own piece of jewellery and send it to your home e-mail.
Although it’s located quite far from the downtown core, this museum is still a glittering addition to Bangkok’s cultural landscape, and one that sheds an interesting and informative light on a glamorous part of Thailand’s multi-faceted heritage—both past and present. It’s well worth an afternoon of anyone’s time, especially for those who have a keen interest in Thai culture and history.
SiamGems Heritage Museum
234 Pradithmanutham Rd.
Open daily: noon-5pm (last entry 4pm)
Tel: 02 949 9500
By Gary Anthony Rutland