Bangkok: City of Gemology Schools
Bangkok is the center of the colored gem trade. Compare the top four Bangkok gemology schools and see why this city is the ideal place to learn about gems.
9 Minute Read
The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences
The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS) was the first gemology laboratory and school in Asia. Started by the Ho family in 1978, AIGS first opened its doors to just a handful of Thai and international students. In the last 40 years, the school has built a strong reputation for being a leader in colored stones education. Their six-month Accredited Gemologist (AG) program consists of four modules (Gem Identification, Synthetic & Treated Gem Identification, Colored Stone Grading and Pricing, and Diamond Grading and Pricing). You can find current prices here.
The Gemological Institute of America
The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) started in 1931 in Los Angeles, California. The school and lab have become famous for their research and work with diamonds. Having created the diamond grading system used all over the world, the GIA offers an especially strong diamond education program, reputed to be the best in the world. They opened up their Bangkok branch in 1993 and have been providing gemological education to Asia ever since. Their six-month Graduate Gemologist (GG) program consists of two sections (Colored Stones and Diamonds). You can find current prices here.
The Gemmological Association of Great Britain
The Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A) is the world's oldest gemology school, having started in London in 1908. However, of the three most well-known schools discussed here, they are the newest in Bangkok, having started in 2000. Their Gemmology Diploma program (FGA) is offered in the Gems and Jewelry Institute Building (GIT). Please note that the Gemmology Diploma doesn't cover diamonds. Gem-A also offers a Diamonds Diploma but not currently in Bangkok. The GIT also offers a Diamond Grading Course (CDG), created in collaboration with the HRD Institute of Gemmology in Antwerp, though apparently no classes are currently scheduled. You can find current prices here.
The Institute of Gem Trading
The Institute of Gem Trading (IGT) is a new offering in Bangkok's gemology education scene. IGT's educational program is meant to complement a gemology diploma with hands-on applied gemology skills, such as rough stone grading and evaluation, cutting and recutting gemstones with lots of theory and practice, and business courses for the gem trade. These courses offer knowledge not widely available outside of long-term apprenticeships. The IGT started in 2017, but their classes are a welcome addition to the traditional knowledge offered from the more well-known schools. Prices are available here.
Comparing the Top Four Bangkok Gemology Schools
We have three very well-known and reputable schools and a new kid on the block. The AIGS is known for colored stones, synthetics, treatments, and market pricing. The GIA is known for diamonds, sales, and preparation for entry into the jewelry sales industry. Gem-A is known to be the most technical and theoretical program, great for those who want to go deeper into the mechanisms behind how gems function on a physical level. The IGT takes you to the next level of training.
All four schools are great options, depending on your needs. But what about Bangkok? Why travel all the way across the world when you can find great gemology schools in the US, Canada, Europe, and China?
Bangkok is the Center of the Colored Stone Trade
The Bang Rak District
All four schools are located in the Bang Rak district, the gemstone-trading neighborhood of Bangkok. The epicenter of this district is the Jewelry Trade Center (JTC) building, located on Silom Road near the intersection with Mahesak Road. In addition to the 50+ floors of gem dealers in the JTC, dozens if not hundreds of shops and offices thrive around Silom and Mahesak. For the potential student, this area constitutes a gold mine of learning experiences. You can meet buyers, sellers, cutters, factory owners, and other people in the gem trade from all over the world.
Bangkok offers gemology students another great resource: gem libraries. There is a very nice public library and museum in the GIT building that boasts 10,000 gem-related books, magazines, and videos. It costs less than $1 to use. The AIGS school library contains about 2,500 books, including several complete collections of journals, such as the GIA's Gems and Gemology (going back to the 1940s) and Gem-A's Journal of Gemmology. While the GIA's main headquarters in California contains over 57,000 gem-related books, the Bangkok campus only has a small collection of around 100 books for student use.
Bangkok's location is also a highlight attraction for gemology students. Thailand has been producing rubies and sapphires for hundreds of years, and the Thai gem-trading community in Chanthaburi has been pioneering the heat treatment industry for over 40 years. In Bangkok or Chanthaburi, interested students can visit gem mines, heat treatment facilities, gem markets, jewelry manufacturers, gem-cutting factories, gem museums, and, of course, jewelry shops.
Other Gem-Related Educational Opportunities
Aside from courses in gemology, students can learn about a number of gem-related subjects during their stay in Bangkok. For those interested in gemstone heat treatments, Ted Themelis offers a Ruby and Sapphire Treatment Class.
For those interested in cutting gemstones in the traditional Thai style, there's a very good school in the Prawet neighborhood, historically a cutting district in Bangkok. Called Venice of the East (or Baan Ploy for Thai speakers), the school is run by a husband-and-wife team who have been working in Bangkok for over 30 years. They have very reasonable prices and a translator for English students. The school also offers gemology classes in Thai.
Networking for Gemology Students
Beyond education, Bangkok has many opportunities for students or fresh graduates to meet people in the industry and find mentorships or jobs.
Every few months, the GIA holds a Gem Gathering, a free talk from an industry professional. Attended by many in the gem trade, it's a great opportunity to meet a huge cross section of the industry.
The GIT offers a near yearly conference that provides another great opportunity to increase your gemology knowledge and meet notable industry professionals.
Finally, the Bangkok Gems and Jewelry Fair is a free show that happens twice a year. This is a great place to see stones and, possibly more importantly, also contact companies, collect business cards, and look for potential job opportunities.
Bangkok is More Affordable Than Staying Home
The JTC Building and a glimpse of the major intersection of Silom and Mahesak Roads. Photos by Justin K Prim.
When it comes to gemstone education, Bangkok is a buffet. You can find almost anything you need in this gemcentric city. However, that's not the only reason you should consider coming to Bangkok for your education.
Cost of Living
The cost of living is very reasonable in Bangkok. Those coming for six months or a year can rent an apartment for as little as $300 a month within a walking or motorbike commute to any gemology school.
If you think you'll be too busy to cook while you're in school, the food in the stalls and restaurants can be very affordable, too. If you can budget $15 per day for food, you'll never be hungry. The wide range of culinary delights Bangkok offers will always satisfy you. The gem district is full of Thai and Indian food, but you can find almost any style of cooking here, such as French, Italian, Malaysian, Japanese, Vietnamese, American, Lebanese, Turkish, Chinese, and Mexican. Not everything is cheap, but you'll definitely find options for every budget.
Tuition and Housing in Bangkok Compared to the US and Europe
Consider these two options:
If you want to attend gemology school but don't think you can afford campus housing, you could do the classes at home and travel to campus to do the labs. You would need to pay your rent at home. If you live in the US or Europe, that could range anywhere from $400 to $1,000 per month. You might spend around $20,000 total if you include tuition, food, and rent. That's $20,000 and six months of you sitting at home doing coursework all day. This requires dedication and no distractions. This also assumes you're a good learner and don't need teachers for any explanations.
If you come to Bangkok, you would spend more on tuition but less on everything else. A rough estimate might be $15,602 for on-campus tuition, housing, and food, plus around $1,000 for a round-trip flight from somewhere in the US or Europe. That's a grand total of around $17,000. You would be learning in the classroom with experienced teachers and could also go on weekend trips to mining locations for first-hand experience. In Bangkok, you would also have daily access to the gem markets, with opportunities for priceless real-world experience and industry networking.
If you also consider that you might save money in other ways, such as the low cost of a Thai sim card ($12/mo for 3GB of data and calls), the minimal cost of commuting through Bangkok ($2 for a 3km taxi), plus the possibility of subletting/Airbnb'ing your house/apartment at home, Option B could offer you a world-class adventure for a lot less than the cost of staying home and studying in the US or Europe.
Proximity to Other Important Gem-Related Destinations
Aside from being an affordable place to stay during your studies, Bangkok is a great jumping-off point for a deeper, real-world education. Although a gemology degree is important for anyone wanting to enter the gem industry, it's only the first step down the long road of learning. Anyone seriously interested in entering the industry should try and get as much experience as possible.
Several important gem cities are close to Bangkok by plane. For example, from Bangkok, you can quickly and easily fly to Myanmar ($70: BKK-MDL) to visit Mogok, fly to Vietnam ($95: BKK-HAN) to visit Luc Yen, and you can easily take a cheap bus to visit Pailin, Cambodia via Chanthaburi ($20: Bus+Taxi). Many other important destinations are also within easy reach, such as Ratnapura, Sri Lanka ($265: BKK-CMB), Jaipur, India ($242: BKK-JAI), and Hong Kong ($183: BKK-HKG).
Anyone coming to Bangkok for six months of school should budget for an additional six months to travel to these important locations. Visit the mines, dealers, and markets in these places so you can honestly say you understand where the stones come from and have personal contacts in each of these places.
Finally, Bangkok provides a great opportunity for mentorship. Contacts are key in the gem trade, and there are many important and accessible people in the Bangkok gem scene. Many established gemologists like Richard Hughes or Vincent Pardieu call Bangkok home and are only an email away. Maybe after you finish school and spend a bit of time visiting the historic gem locations of Asia, you might want to come back to Bangkok and have lunch with one of these industry heavyweights or visit one of the companies that you contacted at the Bangkok Gem and Jewelry Fair. The gem industry is a very personal business, so the more people you can meet and befriend, the more success you're likely to have.
If you love gems, adventure, saving money, and Thai food, I would highly recommend Bangkok as your destination for gemology training. It's the center of the colored stone universe and has more schools, labs, and dealers in one concentrated area than any other city. Bangkok also offers more opportunities to learn outside of the classroom than anywhere else in the world. Spend a year in Asia and you might find that your life has changed dramatically in a good way. Good luck!
This article has appeared on Medium.com. The International Gem Society would like to thank Mr. Prim for giving us permission to post his article here.
Justin K Prim
Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gem cutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. He is currently working on a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He works as a Faceting Instructor for the Institute of Gem Trading as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.
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