When the Bangkok-born Proud Limpongpan graduated from business school, she stepped into the jewellery industry and joined a global company. Out there in the global jewellery market, a trade that is fond of associating itself with European honorifics (designed in Paris, manufactured in Switzerland, certified by Antwerp), she saw through the hidden underbelly of the industry.
"I was surprised to find out how many well-known global brands out there produce in Thailand, yet no one credits the country and its workers much," wrote Limpongpan, who is turning 30 soon, via email. "This fact is even more hidden since a lot of brands finish their products in Europe and so there is a 'Made in (European country)' stamp."
Majority of these global jewellery labels and local brands alike were producing their pieces in "factories in Bangkok" by locals Limpongpan describes as "nameless, faceless people working in the background." However, she notes that an exception is Pandora, the 36-year-old Copenhagen-based jewellery retailer which transparently states on their website that they have been sourcing and producing products in Thailand since their beginning.
It's a situation that is discrediting the contributions of Thailand in the jewellery industry at-large, and masking the country's illustrious histories of gold and silversmithing.
Jewellery is a slice of history that is increasingly lost and forgotten in Thailand. "Actually, silversmithing is a huge part of the Lanna culture, which is the group of people that ruled over northern Thailand for centuries."
Limpongpan is referring to the Lanna Kingdom, which was established in 1292 when Mangrai, the man who later established the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and made himself king over it, came from a neighbouring precinct in search of the famed goldsmiths, silversmiths and coppersmiths. The silversmiths bought silver from the Chinese and made quotidian items such as silver bowls, utensils, serving trays, silver costume jewellery to go with the traditional Thai costume, and even architecture. In 1501, the Wat Sri Supha, or Silver Temple was built in a silversmithing village for worship. There are numerous independent silversmiths living around the temple till date.
While the northern city of Chiang Mai used to be the heart of the silversmithing trade in ancient history, the trade has largely moved southwards to Bangkok today.
So when Limpongpan decided to launch her own contemporary jewellery line Cerimani in 2017, she looked to a small, ethical factory in Bangkok as well.
The Bollé Triple Egg Diamond Necklace in recycled 18k rose gold and diamonds compliant to the Kimberley Process.
What drew Limpongpan to them was the link that the factory had to the northern Chiang Mai, "We found that a lot of these workers have families from the poorest province in Thailand, Mae Hong Son... Most of them are female workers that have migrated from the north in hopes of finding better opportunities in the capital city." The province of Mae Hong Son is situated on the west end of Chiang Mai. Incidentally, the jewellery designer that Limpongpan works with, Chalermpong Susri, "lives up north near Mae Hong Son."
Limpongpan herself acts as the creative director, setting the tone and mood of each collection. Chalermpong, who used to work for the Geneva-based jewellers, Mouawad, then translates them into designs and liaises with the factory to produce these jewellery pieces.
There are no hints of traditional Thai design elements — Limpongpang didn't want that. "Asian-designed jewellery doesn't have to look ethnic," she quips. "It can also be designed with the modern global wearer in mind." The results are pared back contemporary, quotidian jewellery pieces cast in clean lines of silver, yellow or rose gold. Its honeycombs are painted in soft colours in the form of precious stones. These pieces are retailed directly to consumers on Cerimani's website.
The Bollé Gem Star Ring in silver studded with 80 Swiss blue topaz.
The revenue is funnelled into helping the hometown of these factory workers — the villagers in Mae Hong Son by "making sure they have access to basic [necessities] such as clean water".
In the year past since the launch of Cerimani, the brand has "helped one village [with] 140 villagers in the south of Mae Hong Son to have [daily] access to fresh water without having to walk for miles to get clean water, and four new toilets."
While Limpongpan is in the midst of reaching out to and helping more villages in the precinct, she has plans to "build vocational jewellery schools," in a bid to provide employment and income opportunities for these villagers who have fallen out of the state's welfare safety net. "Their key issue is that they live far up the mountainous areas — a lot of public sector funding has not reached [them] or are very much outdated [there]," explains Limpongpan. "This means it is very unlikely for them to get out of the poverty cycle within the next generation."
Beyond all that, it seems like Limpongpan has a greater purpose for her jewellery brand, Cerimani. Having navigated the global jewellery sector and witnessed the inner workings, it seems like Limpongpan feels an injustice for the local jewellery industry. It deserves attention for what it does today and recognition for what it used to be. "We want to bring that pride back," says Limpongpan.
Proud Limpongpan's jewellery label, Cerimani is showing at the JewelLuxe Singapore trade show from the 12th to 21st October 2018.
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