Normally, when someone thinks about very fine gemstone carvings, the imagination wanders to Idar Oberstein, Germany or China. However, we are now learning that some of the best gemstone carvers in the world are working in Thailand, Burma and Bali. Why? Because these carvers have learned their craft, skill and expertise with the inspiration of Buddha and/or religious animism.

In these countries, there appears to be a system of training similar to that seen in Germany. The carvers begin as apprentices who must study for 10-15 years before they earn the well deserved status of Master Carver. However, many of them are never quite able to achieve the proficiency of a Master Carver.

The shop owner will know within the first two years whether or not an apprentice is exhibiting sufficient promise and skill to become a Master. There are customarily only one or two apprentices in ten who display the required expertise to continue in their efforts to become a Master.

At that point, the trainer starts showing them the difficult "art" of imparting motion into a gem carving - like the undulating rhythm of a fish or the effortless action of a bird in flight, or the fearsome anger of a threatening dragon. Of those well-selected candidates displaying sufficient skill after the first two years, still only 50% will manage to become Master Carvers.

Most of the Asian Masters are creating the finest detailed carvings you can imagine of Buddha in various poses and sizes. Some of these carvings are small enough to embellish the characteristic 24 karat gold necklaces that you see dangling on Thai men and women all over the country. From there the carvings range in sizes up to 20 times larger than that of the actual Buddha 2,500 years ago.

However, a very few of these virtuosos are occasionally coerced into utilizing their masterful talents and skills to create natural carvings for something more universal, such as the marvelous duplications of wildlife you will find in any of the galleries or fine jewelry shops inspired by Idar Oberstein's gemstone artists.

Normally the materials used for the Buddha images are those easily found in Thailand and Burma, such as white or gray jade and low-grade lapis lazuli. When available, a natural quartz crystal Buddha is one of the most prized possessions imaginable because of the special metaphysical properties attributed to Thai Buddhists. Ivory is also a favoured material, but that business has declined severely since the worldwide ban of this ecologically precious substance.

Those few maverick Master Carvers who are venturing into new subject matter are just now beginning to experiment with some of the previously "exotic" materials, such as Australian opal, Burma ruby, Columbian emerald, Pakistani kunzite or Brasilian morganite.

Most people probably think the Southeast Asian carvers would be much cheaper than the Master German Carvers. That would be true if one was talking about the top ruby and sapphire cutters in Bangkok and Chantaburi who earn 15,000 baht a month. But in Chiang Mai or Maesai (the northern border of Burma in the Golden Triangle) a Master Carver makes 100,000 baht for the completion of a life-size Buddha to be sold or donated to a well-respected Wat (Temple) in Thailand. Such work takes the Master about 2 months to complete.

Consequently, it is not at all easy to lure those few Masters away from their artistic profession in the realm of the Wats. Not only is it a question of money, but the Asian's experience is totally foreign to natural wildlife subject matter. So the already well-skilled and experienced Master must undertake a new learning-training experience. However, once those few masters bold enough to take up the challenge do so, the results are beyond spectacular. The carving skill of the Asian Master is every bit as good as the German Masters. The only skill in which they still need some improvement is with their knowledge and understanding of the "exotic" gem materials. But, have no fear; they are easily up to the challenge. They only require more experience in the new gem materials, and will soon bring true Fabergé deja vu to the gemstone and jewelry market.

Thomas Banker
 

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