Carving a niche in jade

There are a few craftspeople at Mandalay’s Mahar Aung Myay market who stay out of the buying and selling fray, but instead work the precious stones into statues.

Yet the business is small compared to the volume of jade moving through the market. Most stones are ultimately crafted into jewellery in China, meaning the financial benefits of the artistry go to foreign craftspeople.

Mandalay craftspeople say they need to be more familiar with modern techniques to compete with Chinese carvings.

Ko Kyaw Hein, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the business, said he is careful to produce carvings that suit Chinese buyers, such as floral designs and lockets in the form of leaves.

“We have to make fashionable sculptures, so we look at images from Chinese catalogues,” he said. “So, we can say that we are also learning from China about producing better sculptures.”

Improving the quality of Myanmar-produced statues is not only a matter of know-how. Chinese craftspeople often have access to larger investments to purchase the devices used to create beautiful jade works of art.

“We need modern machines, such as polishing devices, to be able to compete with Chinese carvings,” he said.

Other jade carvers say demand may evolve over time, with more room for Myanmar-style designs.
Carved jade dealer U Myo Zaw said he reckons Myanmar-style carvings could be popular on the international market, if high-quality designs can be created.

For instance, Myanmar-style lion carvings look different than Chinese-style lion carvings. While most lions for export are currently in the Chinese style, that could change in the future.

“Myanmar jade carvings are currently selling in the Chinese market. If Myanmar carvings wants to take a share of the international market, Myanmar jade carvings must reflect Myanmar designs, while including modern machinery and better sculptors, who can teach youngsters,” he said.

“Myanmar jade carvings have weaknesses in polishing, and the worksmanship needs to be more tidy.”
Most locally produced carvings are first made with machines, with the finishing touches added by hand. Sculptures made with quality stones and better worksmanship of course attract higher prices – though for jade particularly, assessing value is something of an art in itself.

Sculptor Ko Kyaw Hein said he reckons the industry could be greatly benefited by a training school in jade carving.

Carving is a slow art that can take three or four years to learn.

U Yone Mu, chair of the Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepeneurs Association, said a gems training school is being built in Nay Pyi Taw.

Chinese experts will train local craftspeople in working jade and gems, following agreement between the two countries.

The association has pursued several plans to add value to locally produced gems in order to boost the export and domestic markets, said U Yone Mu, adding that this process would take time and require industry support.

“For years we’ve been selling raw gems because we don’t have the knowledge or the technique to work them. Chinese people revered and cherish jade, which is often carved with Chinese zodiac signs. But we don’t have the skills to do this ourselves,” he said.

“We will send a study tour to China to learn about their culture and customs before the school opens,” he added. “I would like to urge local entrepreneurs to work together in trying to create a finished product market. If not, we look like we are serving the interest of their traders.”
Producing local statues is no easy task.

Some images take four days to be cut, and Chinese traders are very exacting about the quality they will purchase for export.

Recently, Chinese traders have been keen on monkey statutes, images of smiling people and statues of the Kwan Yin Goddess.

“Proficiency in jade sculptures depends on learners’ study, creativity and aptitude,” he said.
The price of jade sculptures varies widely depending on the quality and size, with standard prices in Mandalay of between K30,000 at the low end up to K1 million – or sometimes beyond.

Besides the jade school, the industry is looking at other ways to improve local products and capture more value-add inside the country.

Myanmar sponsored the third International Gems and Jewellery Expo at the Myanmar Gems Museum on Kabar Aye Pagoda Road from March 27 to 31.

The goal was to study advanced technology in cutting and polishing, with an eye to extending these skills in the local industry. Experts from over 20 countries took part, including from as far afield as Vietnam, Italy and Germany.

Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Association secretary (2) U Tun Hla Aung said the polished gems displayed during the show were not for sale.

“Some countries produce fewer stones than Myanmar, but they have a big market share because of technology. We must study it,” he said.

Ma Myintzu, an official at the exposition, said Myanmar is rich in natural resources such as jade and rubies, but lacks the other factors that make successful exporters.

“We are studying the advanced technology used in cutting and polishing. If we can use that machinery, our gems and jewellery market will be wider,” she said.

While many in the industry are trying to capture higher value inside the country, there is a long way to go before the Mandalay craftspeople are international leaders.

Source: Myanmar Times

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