Google returns 1,280,000 pages on a search for ‘Thailand Gem Scam’. A search on ‘Jake Gyllenhaal Naked’ will bring you 2,290,000 results. Larger numbers, but you’ll have a much better chance of participating in the former than ever getting to see the latter. The Gem Scam in Thailand is a tradition. Everyone knows of it, and every day another few dozen suckers fall victim to it. If this is news to you, go do that Google search. And then search on ‘Thailand Gem Scam’, too. Explaining how the scam works is not the purpose of this post. Telling you why buying gems and jewelry in Thailand isn’t necessarily a scam is.
The Gem Scam is a con game. All cons rely on the exact same thing: greed. That, and cash, is your part of the scam. A bit of stupidity doesn’t hurt either, but greed rules the day. If you do not fall victim to your own greed, you also will not fall victim to this con. So maybe forget about Googling ‘Thailand Gem Scam’ and instead start repeating your new mantra: I will not be greedy. I will not be greedy . . .
The fact is the gem and jewelry business in Thailand is a major industry world renown for the quality of workmanship, quality and cut of gemstones, and low prices. You can get excellent deals in Thailand on jewelry. How good of a deal really depends on the purpose behind your purchase. But let’s go back to the scam for a minute and clarify. If you are greedy and stupidly fall victim to this con you will not be buying a worthless piece of glass represented as a flawless diamond (That’s the Cambodian Gem Scam). What you will get for your money is a poor quality stone at an incredibly high price. Really, all that happens is you over pay for the merchandise. You’re still a sucker, but then so is the poor sap who barters his heart out to nab that $100 deal on a fake Rolex at Patpong’s Night Market. So really it is more a case of you being a bad shopper than the seller running a scam on you.
You can easily be as bad of a shopper for gems and jewelry in Thailand without participating in all the trappings of the Gem Scam. Even a reputable shop will gladly let you over pay for your purchase. As with most purchases in the Kingdom, all prices are negotiable. The seller is always going to start high, it’s your job to get him to go lower. Do you job right, and you can walk away with a great deal.
The least greed prone purchase for jewelry in Thailand is the toui on holiday who drops into one of the hundreds of jewelry stores in Bangkok, sees a piece he loves, feels the agreed to price is reasonable, makes the purchase, and goes home with a pricey souvenir that he’ll enjoy for years to come. He may have gotten an incredible deal, or he may have over paid. Doesn’t matter. The purchase was made for the enjoyment of the purchase. End of story and everyone rides off into the sunset with a smile on their face. And more than likely, he bought a quality gemstone at a better price than he could have realized back home.
If you keep the greed factor out of a casual purchases you’ll seldom get burned. At least not badly. If however, you are tracking down that elusive $500 ruby worth $5,000 back home . . . uh, did I mention greed yet?
Paying a few hundred dollars for a piece of jewelry as a casual purchase is as safe in Thailand as it is back in the States. When you get up into the $1,000 range, there is a higher chance you’ll overpay for the piece. But that’s your fault. How many $1,000 purchases do you make without doing a bit of research first? Do you know the relative value between an amethyst gemstone and a topaz? Do you know why one sapphire gemstone will cost $300 while another of equal size and cut runs $1,000? If you are travelling to Thailand and plan on buying an expensive piece of jewelry, do your homework first. Then you’ll know what you are buying and you’ll be in a stronger position to negotiate a fair price. Knowing where to do your shopping helps, too.
The large jewelry superstores that cater to the touri trade are not your friend. Their business relies upon the gullibility and lack of knowledge of their customers. And, of course, a bit of greed. They’ll tell you that they have the best prices because they cut the stones and make the jewelry on-site. You’ll even get to see the work being done when you are whisked past the cutters on your way to the showroom. They may in fact do some, possibly all, work on site. But ‘best prices’ means best prices for them, not for you. Most of the stones they use are of low to average quality. Almost all of the colored stones they sell are heated, dyed, or radiated to enhance their color. Those with the most vivid color are usually lab grown. Treating gem stones to enhance their color, and increase their value to consumers, is standard in the industry all over the world. It’s not a Thai scam. But the prices they ask are for stones of much higher quality. If you can’t tell the difference, you will overpay for your piece of jewelry. Buyer beware.
If you keep your wallet in your pocket, visiting one of those humongous gem malls is a fun, educational, and inexpensive daytime outing. Any taxi or tuk tuk driver will be glad to take you as they’ll get free food and gas vouchers for delivering you to the store. An even cheaper option is to pick a place out and give them a call, they will send a car to collect you free of charge. Once there, you’ll be given a free drink and assigned a salesgirl. The first part of your tour will be a brisk walk through the ‘factory’ where locals are busy cutting and polishing gems and doing finish work to settings. There is no money to be made here, so your salesgirl will not want to dawdle. Too bad. Take your time, watching the craftsmen at work is quite interesting. She won’t appreciate your interest but has been trained to be quite knowledgeable about the work being done and will begrudgingly answer all your questions. When you can no longer avoid her desire to move on you’ll be whisked into the showroom.
Your salesgirl will lead and follow you through the cavernous showroom sizing you up and trying to get you to buy the most expensive pieces. You are under no obligation to make a purchase. But go ahead and admire the jewelry on display. Pick out a $40,000 ring and try it on – how many times do you get to see what your hand looks like dressed in a piece of jewelry that costs more than your car? (Uh, but don’t pull a Lindsay Lohan and accidently walk out still wearing the piece. The Thais are not as forgiving about situational alzheimer’s.)
The jewelry is usually cased by type of stone, so you’ll get to see the range of colors and cuts each displays. The cheaper stones, and those set in silver, will be toward the exit, a last ditch effort at prying a purchase out of you. But wait! There’s more! When you exit the showroom you’ll enter another showroom, this one filled with silk, carved wood, cheap strings of beads, perfumes, and anything that could possibly entice you into spending a few bucks. These knickknacks will be as overpriced as the jewelry you just saw. If you really are interested in buying jewelry on your trip, this outing will show you what is available, you’ll have determined what the top price is, and will have been educated, to some degree. Now go find a real jeweler to make your purchase.
The reason you can get a great deal at a reputable shop is due to several factors. Thailand was the leading nation in the stone cutting business until India, with an even cheaper workforce, took over. Cutting is still inexpensive in Thailand. Precious metals are priced by weight in Thailand; back home you’ll also pay for workmanship. Sapphires mined in Thailand are a great deal: local source, lower cost. So are rubies, though most are smuggled in from Burma (both sapphire and ruby come from the same stone, corundum, btw.) Many common stones such as garnet and amethyst are mined in Thailand, and Afghani stones like topaz and aquamarine are brought in by the tons. Diamonds, however, will cost the same as back home. They are not usually a good buy in Thailand unless the rate of exchange is extremely favorable (which it is not right now).
One of my favorite gemstones is the grey star sapphire. This gorgeous gemstone is not as common as the blue star, which is more available and often fake. Telling the difference between a real star sapphire and a lab grown one is easy: lab grown stones’ star shows on the top of the stone. Look at a real star sapphire and the star comes from the interior of the stone. The best stones throw the star under any light and at any angle of viewing. The more work you have to do to see the star, the cheaper the stone should be. A grey star sapphire is a good stone to use to determine how reputable a place is. Overpriced dealers out to gouge rarely carry this gem; it is not very popular. So even if you are not interested in buying a piece mounted with a grey star sapphire, ask to be shown what the shop has and you’ll know how reputable of a store you are dealing with.
The one gemstone I’d warn you against purchasing is jade. Buy jade in Thailand and there’s a good chance you will get scammed. Almost all jade comes from Burma. Most is shipped to China for cutting. Asians know jade. Westerners do not. But the magical word ‘jade’ commands a high price, even when the stone is of low value. And it might not even be jade. Other stones can legally be sold as jade if a descriptive word is used first. Old Jade, New Jade, and Soochow Jade, are common terms and all refer to serpentine. Unscrupulous dealers will rename almost any green colored stone ‘jade’ of some sort. If that’s not confusing enough, there are two different stones properly known as jade: jadeite and nephrite. One is expensive, the other cheap. Most Americans, when they say jade, are thinking nephrite, the cheaper stone (but are willing to pay the price of jadeite).
In Thailand your best deal will be on sapphires with rubies running a close second. Amethyst, garnet, citrine, and topaz set in silver are also great deals and less expensive than sapphire and rubies. But your absolute best jewelry purchase at a cheap price is silver, No stones. Just silver.
If you shop at one of the major silver dealer areas in town and buy just a few pieces you can get the wholesale price, similar to what jewelry dealers get back in the States on bulk wholesale sales. The cost will be valued on weight, you do not pay for the workmanship involved. The average price per gram runs between 20 and 25 baht – though current wide fluctuations in the silver market means this changes often and usually upward. How much you buy and where you buy it will make a difference.
The cheapest place to buy silver jewelry are those Tiffany booths that have sprung up at all the night markets. Not Tiffany; not silver . . . please go back and study the greed mantra.
One of the major silver dealer areas is along Charoenkrung Road by the Oriental Hotel. Their prices are the highest in town. They’ll even admit as much to you. Pratunam Center is home to numerous shops specializing in silver and most offer low, low wholesale prices. And it is nice they are all under one air-conditioned roof. Shop around and ask what the wholesale baht per gram price is so that you know what your purchase should cost before getting your wallet out. There are a few shops on the ground floor, but most are located in the basement. By far the best silver shopping area in town, however, is Khaosan Road.
I’m sure there is some historical significance as to why so many silver dealers congregate in an area devoted to the backpacker crowd, but the reasoning is beyond me. If you are going to shop for wholesale pricing there, do not look like you are sleeping in the area too. The merchants do not like backpackers and if they think you are one they’ll run you out of their shop. Or refuse you entry in the first place.
You can get wholesale pricing at these places by spending as little as $50. The trick is to ask what their wholesale price is when you walk in. If you allow them to quote retail to you, they’ll never come down to the wholesale price level. This is a great place to do your Xmas shopping or stock up on office gifts. You can buy a dozen sterling silver earrings for as little as $3 per pair; back home the same earrings would run you $20. Silver chains and chunky silver bracelets are great deals too. And there are a lot of pendants available, even those with inexpensive gemstones are incredibly cheap. The best prices though are on hill tribe silver.
Thai silver usually runs about 5 baht per gram cheaper than sterling (.925). Hill tribe silver actually has more silver in it than sterling silver does. So it is cheaper. Thai logic at work. Most dealers in the area carry some hill tribe pieces; a few stores specialize in it. You won’t get as good of a deal as you will up in Chiang Mai, but you can still walk away with a piece that looks like it cost $100 but which you only paid $25 for.
The added advantage of buying silver jewelry in Thailand, for Americans, is there is no duty on silver from Thailand. Coming back into the country you are allowed $800 worth of goods, duty free. Anything over that a tariff is charged. Unless you loaded up on silver. Then there is no duty fee on your ‘overage.’ (The same holds true on loose gemstones, those not set in a piece of jewelry. But, you’ll pay a high price to have them set back in the States, so the duty free aspect of bringing them back home with you is a nonstarter.)
Part of Thailand’s Gem Scam is being let in on a special government authorized and blessed sale. No such thing exists. But there are two large gem shows held each year in September and February, usually at the IMPACT Center. It is easy to get in by registering on line even if you are not in the business (lie). The dealers will not be interested in selling you a single piece of jewelry, but there is an amazing selection at these shows and you may want to consider polishing off your Xmas shopping list with one stop shopping. The deals are almost too good to be true.
Unlike the Gem Scam. Then, the deals are too good to be true. For most touri, buying jewelry in Thailand is not a scam. But if you are interested in that $5,000 ruby for a measly $500, drop me a note . . . have I got a deal for you!
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