Eyes Gold Ornaments, Beholds Thai Society
Back to the beginning as he was one of the first generation of 20 students at the Golden Jubilee Royal Goldsmith College 15 years ago, Niphon together with his fellow students naturally contributed to knowledge building for the college. As the real royal goldsmiths all passed away without any known successors who inherited their ingenious skills, the only ‘ancient teacher’ left behind is age-old gold objects from which the Bureau of the Royal Household ‘opens its trove’ for students to observe, analyze and set their hands on them.
“Some didn't dare touching the pieces but I believe ‘fear your own teacher, learn nothing.' You've to hold it, do it by your own hands to acquire true skills and knowledge. Other than that, we made a comparative analysis between known techniques of present-day master goldsmiths who have never seen any ancient gold works in the Royal Palace before, and assumed methods from our analytical inference of the artifacts.” Niphon shared with us some parts of the learning process in his 7-year student life of the Royal Goldsmith College .
After graduation, Niphon and some fellow students were appointed to be Royal Goldsmiths affiliated with the Bureau of the Royal Household. Their main responsibility is the restoration of gold objects including ornaments and utensils exclusively used in royal ceremonies.
Other aspect of his working life is at the Golden Jubilee Royal Goldsmith College. It includes teaching, repair and fabrication of gold objects. In addition, there are customers who directly commissioned various kinds of gold works from him.
“To restore is far more difficult than to create. You overdo it and it becomes eccentric. The rule of thumb is to stick to the original. If the piece is so defected that its original shape and form can’t be traced, we won’t repair it. A damaged piece out of function and beyond repair deserves retirement to a museum.” Niphon elaborated about gold work restoration.
The principle of creation is assertively interesting. According to Niphon, a new piece made by traditional techniques must definitely be a ‘neat' fabrication. A perfect finish may be characteristically different from those antique counterparts but he perceived it as the era's history registered on the piece.
“Goldsmiths in the old days did have some reasons for such typical characteristics of their works. It’s probably done either by intention or restriction. Very thin gold foil was used because circumstances at the time demanded economizing. Or the percentage of gold was low because they were not well-appointed of refining technology. In certain time, goldsmiths were mainly Chinese; their products evidently gave themselves away that they were not made by Thais. As for age-old ‘Tubsuangs’, they were filled with natural resin or beeswax to make them sturdy. If we do that, our customer wouldn’t be able to check the weight of gold.” Accordingly, the reason behind the creation of gold articles by ‘Niphon, the Royal Goldsmith’ these days is a determination to tangibly record the workmanship crafted with mature techniques and all necessary equipments. Even the extremely high value of them is considered by him as the imprint of wealth as well as faith of this age.
“A lot of my works were meant to be offering to monks or dedication to the Lord Buddha. And I was contented with that. My works became a part of objects of veneration. A certain customer commissioned a shrine room sheathed with gold sheets worth several ten million Baht. Other ordered a bejeweled pedestal of a Buddha image.” Niphon gave some examples in which traditional crafts could still respond to modern-day demands, especially articles concerning Buddhist art.
Parallel paths: traditional gold ornament and designed jewellery
Nevertheless, Niphon viewed that he and his friends as well as the later generations of the Royal Goldsmith College’s students possess expertise of preservation-oriented goldsmith craft; they also learned modern jewellery making. There was a slim chance that those students could later apply the knowledge of traditional gold work in response to modern market, though.
Most our undergraduates work in companies. They do qualify as skilled goldsmiths with authentic knowledge of traditional styles and techniques but talking about any opportunities to put these specific know-how in use, there were admittedly a few. It’s because techniques would be determined by design.” Niphon recognized that Thai society has given much more importance to traditional gold jewellery as well as jewellery design in the last ten years, the problem is they have made progress on their own separate tracks that have never merged with each other.
“Ever since I had produced gold work for sales, I never had any foreign customers yet. It seems impossible for other native people to be interested in our traditional styles. What they may purchase might be a chic piece with less ornamentation.”
Niphon pointed out the necessity of building an approach that combines the knowledge of Thai traditional jewellery with the art of modern design. The result is to make possible a creation of a jewellery product of notable Thai identity which can simultaneously responds to the demand of either Thai or foreign people of the epoch.