Monday, December 3, 2012

Bangkok Gems

Rough Sapphires Awaiting Processing
 Visitors to Bangkok are most likely very familiar with the plethora of locations and "opportunities" to purchase jewelry.  Just about every guide book that I have read on Thailand also cautions tourists regarding touts for gems and jewelry scams in Bangkok.

The raw stones for the jewelry sold in Bangkok come mainly from Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.  Raw stones are not suitable directly from the mines to be used in jewelry.  The raw stones which are irregular shaped and opaque need to be processed somewhere and by someone before they can be used in jewelry.  On our last trip to Bangkok last month, I visited one such location where sapphires were being processed.

Our flight back to Udonthani was a late afternoon flight so we ended up visiting Duang's Bangkok relatives.  With some time on our hands we decided to visit some of Duang's relatives who live and work in Bangkok.  "Live and work" go together even more closely in Thailand and other Asian countries than in many other countries.  Many people in urban areas live in concrete structures call "shop houses".  Shop houses are two story drop front concrete and brick row houses typically 5 to 10 units wide.  Typically a family has a business on the ground floor and sleep upstairs.

Selling Vegetables In Bangkok Working Neighborhood
Businesses run the complete range of activities - small market, restaurant, bicycle shop, photocopy shop, making clothing, motorcycle repair shop, printing shop, electrical repair shop, electronic repair shop, welding shop, and machine shop. Duang's relatives make clothing mainly for tourists.

Duang's Relatives Sewing Custom Clothing
Throughout Bangkok you will find shops, some located in hotels, where you can select fabrics and be custom measured for clothing.  In the vast majority of the locations, the articles of clothing are not manufactured on site.  The measurements and information as to style are sent off site - off site to a working neighborhood where people will make the clothing.  Partially finished and finished products are transported back and forth by motorbike.

Duang's family operate one of the cottage industries where the clothing is made.  The entire staff is related and lives together in the shop house.  They cook and eat along with work on the first floor.  The bathroom is also on the ground floor.  Everyone sleeps upstairs in one large room with curtains hung on ropes strung across the room providing some degree of privacy.

On our first visit back in December 2010, I had explored this neighborhood.  The area is in Southwest Bangkok where very few tourists visit.  The streets are narrow and crowded with family life often spilling out from the shop houses onto the margins of the streets. Where Duang's relatives live the street is so narrow that you have to walk or go by motorbike to get there.  All this contributes to a most interesting neighborhood.  I found places where families were making small purses that are sold in morning as well as night markets.  There were also two other homes where clothing was being produced.  There were several little markets as well as restaurants.  At one home, the women were making greeting cards.  I even found a machine shop where large blades for shearing thick stacks of paper were being sharpened. Around the corner there was a commercial print shop with three offset printing presses.

During last month's visit after paying my respects to the family, I grabbed my camera and set off to explore once again.  The biggest change that I found was that one of the places where little purses were being made two years ago is now occupied by a new family that processes sapphires for the local jewelry industry.

This is a family business with sons, daughters, and in-laws all having duties and responsibilities in the process.  Towards the back of the ground floor room the television was on showing a cartoon show that three small children were attentively watching.

For Some in Thailand - Everyday is "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day"
Sapphires, a mineral called Corundum, need to first be cut roughly into the size and shape required for a specific purpose.  After being cut, the gemstone has to have facets ground into the surface of the stone.  The facets then require polishing to facilitate the reflection and refraction of light i.e "sparkle"

After asking permission to enter, I moved from my streetside location to better positions overlooking the worker's shoulders.  The first work station involved grinding the rough somewhat irregular shaped dark stones into more suitable sizes and shapes.  The work was performed on a mechanical lathe type device.  A single stone was mounted on a plastic shaft and shaped with a silicon carbide wheel.  Periodically the operator stopped to measure and inspect the preform as it developed.

Dimensional Checking of Rough Gemstone

Facets are then cut and polished over the entire preform.  The preform is "dopped" (attached) with adhesive wax, crazy glue, or epoxy on to a metal dopstick which resembles a tapered pencil.  During my visit I did not see this process and because Duang remained with her relatives I did not have a translator to help me understand better what was going on or how it was done.

A Worker Adds Facets Using A Lap, Adjustable Handpiece

Further done the processing line a young man was polishing the facets on some extremely small gems - so small that he had to use a loupe to inspect them and I had to remove my eyeglasses before using the loupe to just barely see the sapphire - sort of makes me think of a butchered recent film title "No Process For Old Men"

Young Worker With A Bunch of Dopped Gems to Be Polished
Addition of the facets and polishing of the facets is accomplished on the same type of equipment.  An electric motor turns a flat rotating metal disk called a lap.  A series of various abrasives, incrementally smaller and smaller in grit size, are spread on the lap for processing the gemstone.  The stone mounted on the dobstick is pressed against the rotating lap and the other end of the dopstick against a vertical mast to achieve as well as maintain proper angles.  A great deal of inspection and verifying of angles is performed during the process.

Inspecting In Process Gems

Taking A Closer Look
After visiting the gemcutters, I continued my tour of the neighborhood.  I found the old man that I had photographed playing chess alongside of the street two years ago.  The Ladyboy who delivers crushed ice from his mother's shophouse across the street from the chess player was still making deliveries to customers on her bicycle.  The machine shop still had four large shear blades to machine.

I visited the printer and he proudly gave me a tour of his shop making special effort to point out the two presses that came from Germany.  He had a large run of government forms that were being printed for Chiang Mai.  He offered me a glass of cold water which even though it was November, I greatly appreciated and needed.  Even in November the temperature is often above 90 F in Bangkok.

I returned to Duang's family shop before I got into trouble ... trouble with Duang.  She worries about me when I am out and about on my own.  I am sure that I could find trouble if I were looking for it on my unaccompanied excursions but I am not looking for it.  Instead I find very friendly people all too willing to share as best they can with a stranger how they live and work.  I hope that in some way that I too am able to share with them some of my ways as our paths cross here in this most interesting land.  It had been a gem of a morning for me - literally and figuratively.

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