How to Buy (Authentic) Jewelry in Southeast Asia
Handing over a credit card for an expensive purchase on vacation can be nerve-wracking, especially when you’re giving it to a pushy jeweler throwing out complicated, confusing industry terms. All too often, tourists are unwittingly charmed out of money by a friendly salesperson with a well-rehearsed script promising authentic jewelry that will appraise for twice its value at home.
Even the street-savviest tourists have been know to be duped, which is why Travel+Leisure chatted with Gavin Linsell, a Bangkok-based gemologist with more than 15 years’ experience in the industry and author of The Clever Gem Buyer, on how—and where—to get the real thing in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia is famous for jewelry and gemstones. Anything specific?
Sapphires and rubies are the biggest gemstones in Asia, and Thailand is the center of most of Southeast Asia’s jewelry production. Neighboring countries, like Cambodia and Vietnam, will commonly import stones and finished goods from Thailand, so by shopping in Thailand you’re getting it direct from the source, which is great.
Nearly 70 percent of the world’s sapphires and 90 percent of the world’s rubies come from Thailand, which guarantees customers will get a better rate than at home. One thing I recommend against buying in Southeast Asia is emerald jewelry, because the quality of the stones here isn't very good. Also, jade is notoriously hard to buy—even for experts—so I would caution against spending a lot of money on it.
What are red flags when visiting a jewelry store?
Never let a commission-hungry tuk-tuk driver take you to buy jewelry (that same rule applies to tailored clothing) and, it may seem like common sense, but never buy anything expensive directly off the street. It would be like buying a Rolex from the trunk of a car and expecting it to be real—not going to happen.
The best thing to remember is that if a deal seems too good to be true, it is. When you’re in a store, the number one thing is feeling comfortable with the venue and sales staff. If you don’t feel comfortable, leave. Make sure the shop is well-lit and clean, with a digital scale, large, white paper mat for showing pieces, tweezers and a loupe—which is a handheld magnifier for inspecting the jewelry. These are signs of a quality jeweler.
Are there common scams?
Watch out for bait-and-switch tactics like offering to box up an item in the back room, where it can easily be swapped for an inferior but identical product. If you’re buying a ring that needs resizing, it’s best practice to watch the jeweler resize it in front of you. A polite way to approach this is to say, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by jewelry, can I watch and take photos so I can put this on my Facebook page?’
What about negotiation?
Negotiation is not only necessary, it’s expected. At markets in Thailand, bargaining starts at 50 percent off the first offer, but with jewelry there are too many variables that determine an asking price. Be an informed buyer, and have a ballpark idea of the price before politely asking if that is the best they can do.
Be sure to ask about the type of stone, find out its origin and type of cut. Asking these questions is more about determining the seller’s understanding and confidence in the product than it is about looking for specific answers. If they say they’re not sure to any of those questions, walk away from the deal.
How can travelers find a reputable location?
Customers planning to buy big-ticket pieces of $5,000 or more should visit local jewelers to understand pricing and quality before traveling. Also, look up trade associations and ask for a list of recommended retailers in the city where you’ll be traveling. I am a member of the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA), an organization whose members include the top gemstone miners, cutters and dealers throughout the world. They’re an excellent resource for finding quality dealers abroad. Once you’ve arrived, you can ask the hotel’s concierge for recommendations, too.
When you’re ready to buy, it’s worth spending the money (around $20) to get an independent certification done on items reaching four-figure dollar amounts or more. In-store certifications should be readily available, and are a sufficient check for less expensive items. The certificate in the shop will have the contact information of the lab who certified the piece, so call them and make sure the serial number matches the product you’re buying.
When possible, get any details (materials used, color of the stones, carat weight) on a formal invoice or company letterhead, not a handwritten notepad. Don’t forget to ask about returns or service issues; a good shop will want to create a strong relationship for a return trip.
Some of my personal recommendations in Asia:
• Tabtim Dreams at the Jewelry Trade Center (JTC) in Bangkok
• Bali has great silver work and carvings, and one of the best places for that is Atlas Pearls and Perfumes
• In Chiang Mai, Thailand, is Beauty Gems, a family-owned business that has been around for decades
• Budget-conscious shoppers and those looking to support fair trade practices will love Lofty Bamboo
• For diamonds in Bangkok, you’ll find at the Emporium mall has great deals and you don’t have to worry about buying conflict diamonds.