There are four ways to buy gems in Chantaburi. You can buy them from people on the street who hang around the tourist hotels. These people are usually the sellers from the mines, and they are trying to unload the gems which they could not find a buyer for elsewhere. The second place to buy them is from a gem shop. The third is from a jewelry store. You will see a better grade of stone, and more rare colors there, but you will pay the price. Also, jewelry stores want to sell bracelets and rings more than loose stones.The final way is from a broker. The broker sits at one of several tables on Gem Street, finds out what you are interested in buying, and he takes his felt pen and a piece of loose leaf paper and makes a sign which he puts up somewhere easy to see from the street. Vendors who have what the sign says will come in and show you their gems, and bargain with you. Though the seller does the bargaining, he or she knows the broker will take a commission, so he'll pitch his price way too high at first. You pay the broker, not the seller.
I started out by going to gem shops, but was told by three of them that star sapphires are a collector's item, so the gem stores didn't stock many. I did buy a small batch of stones from the first shop I tried, but it took half an hour just for them to dig them out of the vault. Another gem shop sold me the best big dark blue stars I had ever seen, but the price was pretty high. I bought some odd colored stones at a jeweler, who kept trying to sell me settings for them, and I paid a high price there too. I had my best luck at the broker, but it took some doing.
My first stop was at a broker, and of course a crowd of vendors gathered when they saw the Westerner. I kept telling them I was only looking for gems which had stars, and they kept putting cut stones under my nose. Sapphires, rubies, garnets, you name it. After 10 minutes of not seeing a star sapphire, I got up and left. My next stop was at the other end of Gem Street at a gem shop. See the rest of the story behind the cut.
Here's a teaser
Way too many photos
Black sapphires are really brown. They are the most common, and their stars are not as bright as the lighter colors. Also, you can usually see the striated layers inside the stone. The first group were the first sapphires I bought. The seller had a shop which only had a few mediocre stones, and this batch was sold to me for 300 Baht, or about $7.50. Each stone is about one carat.
The gem store owner where they had to fish the star sapphires out of the vault sold me these individual stars. We had a nice chat while we waited - turns out he had been a foreign exchange student in Idaho for two years. He had his staff placed the stones on the table in front of me, and I used a flashlight to see the stars, picking the ones with the clearest stars. He then had them weighed, priced, and put in individual little baggies. This group also cost 300 Baht. Here's the set:
When I got out of the gem shop, the broker was out front on his motorcycle. He told me to hop on, he had star sapphires. So I did. I saw a lot of very poor stones with fuzzy stars, and then someone dumped about 200 small stones on the table, and I picked a few out. This group cost 850 Baht ($21.25):
Then someone put a lone navy blue stone with a very sharp star in front of me, the one at the top of this posting, and I paid 1400 Baht($35) for it without much bargaining. Silly me. It is about 5 carats, and was the first good star I'd seen all day.
The feeding frenzy was on! I had my socks knocked off by a packet of about 50 stones, 2 to 3 carats each, total of 104 carats of about the same quality as the lone blue star I'd just bought. I started choosing individual stones, but the seller said he would give me a deal on the whole packet. 8500 Baht ($212.50). I offered 4000 (the logic being to offer less than half, in hopes of getting the price down to 50%). His final offer was 5,000 Baht ($125) which I gladly accepted. Had I walked away from the table, I could have gotten the price down another $25, but these stones are probably worth $50 each in the US, so why bother? This is what they look like:
My final purchase there took some doing. A woman had a packet of 9 slate-gray sapphires ranging from 4 to 10 carats, all with clear stars. I had never seen this color before, and wanted at least one, but did not want to pay the 9,800 Baht ($245) price for the whole set. I picked out two smaller ones, a total of 9.6 carats, and waited for 15 minutes for her to go ask her boss if he would break up the set. Not only did the boss say yes, she let me have the pair for 300 Baht:
Not a very good photo - I'll have to try again with different lighting.
By now I was shopped out, so I went back down Gem Street in search of food. I can't remember if it was on my way there or on my way back, but one of the vendors I had left at the broker's without looking at his stuff waved to me from a gem shop. He showed me what he wanted to show me at the broker's, and said it was good I came to his shop because there's no commission here. He asked me what size stones I was interested in, I told him 2 carats, and he said that was too small. He put a bunch of gorgeous 4-carat navy gems in front of me. I picked a dozen, and we settled on a price of 5,000 Baht ($125) Then he showed me some 8-10 carat stones. I had a budget for buying sapphires, and could only afford to spend 10,000 Baht at this place, lovely as the stones were. He said we could figure something out, and I chose 9 of the big stones, and went away with both sets for 10,000 Baht ($250).
8-10 carat set:
When I tallied up my spending, it looked like I could make one more run to the ATM, so I did that, and then stopped in at the jewelry store which was next to the guest house I was staying at. They had some red stars on display, and I wanted at least one of those. The nice lady invited me into the office, where she showed me many overpriced gems, but they were gems which would be hard for me to find elsewhere. I paid 3000 Baht ($75) for this matched pair of red stars. Too much, they are poor quality and their stars are hard to see:
And also shelled out way too much for this clear sapphire:
Here's another angle of that stone:
And in its jewelry store box:
And that's my 2005 sapphire collection.
Of course I needed to have something to put them in, so I bought a few Hills Tribes embroidered pouches at the market:
And when I was in China, I also bought a couple of jade pieces, but it's nothing you can't easily find in the US:
Now they're all back in the safe deposit box, some will go as gifts, but most will be my rainy day/retirement fund.