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Thailand’s gilded glory

Words: Ronan O’Connell
Photographs: Withoon Premsri
Aug 23, 2019

Thailand’s gilded glory

Words: Ronan O’Connell
Photographs: Withoon Premsri
Aug 23, 2019

Leaning in over their work, which is illuminated by a powerful lamp, the artisans’ strokes are slow, deliberate and precise. The patterns they are painting are remarkably intricate. Yet these skilled crafts people complete these tasks with unwavering confidence. This is the poise and talent required to make Thailand’s renowned Benjarong porcelain.

Once reserved for Thai royalty, these delicate, hand-crafted porcelain products are made from a mixture of three soils before being decorated by real gold and painted in shades deriving from five primary colours. Benjarong may have been introduced to Thailand by the Chinese, but the Thai people have perfected it.

The origins of Benjarong in Thailand have been traced back to the Qing Dynasty (1368-1644). At that time Chinese artisans brought these porcelain works to Thailand and taught local artists how to replicate them. The Chinese porcelain was often decorated by dragons or floral motifs, with white and blue the main colours.

Over time Thai artisans began to create their own unique style of ceramics, based on what they had learned from the Chinese. By the reign of Thai King Rama II, this Thai porcelain had become known as Benjarong. In the Thai language this means five colours. Rather than focusing on blue and white, Benjarong used white, black, green, red and yellow.

At this stage, Benjarong was made only for the Thai Royal Family and aristocrats. This remained the case until the mid-20th century when the Royal Family decreed that Benjarong would now be available for purchase by anyone. This led to a major increase in the production of this pottery across Thailand. 

Nowhere is the majesty of traditional, handcrafted Benjarong better displayed than in Don Kai Dee Benjarong Village in Samut Sakhon Province. Located about 35km south-west of downtown Bangkok, this is considered the oldest and largest Benjarong production village in all of Thailand. Don Kai Dee was created by local artist Urai Tangaeum, 63.

In 1982, a large ceramic factory in Samut Sakhon closed down, leaving hundreds of people out of work, including Mrs Tangaeum. Instead of looking for a job in a different factory, she decided to become a freelance porcelain artist. As demand for her Benjarong products grew she expanded her business into a village, where artists could work together to produce ceramics. Mrs Tangaeum’s daughter, Nipawan, gave me a tour of their studio and explained the nine steps to making Benjarong.

The whole process starts with clay-like mud which is a mix of dirt from three Thai provinces – Lampang, Surat Thani and Ranong. When you consider that Lampang and Surat Thani are almost 1,000km apart, it gives you a sense of how complicated is the process of creating Benjarong, even when it comes to sourcing the base materials. The first step sees an artist takes a lump of this mud, wet it with water and place it onto a pottery wheel.

Then the artisan turns on the belt-powered wheel, using their hands to shape the mud as it rotates at high speed. Once it has been fashioned into the shape of items like a vase, jug, cup or teapot, the third step is to place it in an electric kiln to bake at 800 degrees Celsius for ten hours. This causes the item to strengthen. The fourth step is to then cover the item in a glaze, to give it a shiny appearance, before the fifth step sees it placed back in the kiln at 1,280 degrees so this glaze can dry.

This is where things get tricky. Step six is not just difficult but extremely expensive. The artist I watch carry out this step stops her work momentarily and waves a small bottle at me. “This costs 30,000 Baht,” she tells me of the 150mL bottle of pure liquid gold. Using a pen-like tool, she paints delicate gilded patterns on to a Benjarong vase. Once the gold dries, the artist in charge of step seven uses powdered paint to colour around the gold designs. Then yet another artist traces on the circular, gilded lines which embellish the edges and rims of each item. That is step eight. 

Finally, step nine involves one last, long baking session in the kiln, at 800 degrees. Once the item emerges its colours are more brilliant than ever. It is ready to be sold. While the more modern forms of Benjarong use gold liberally, the most expensive items sold at the village do not. These are designed in the style of the Rama II era, when only the original five colours were used for decoration. “Benjarong collectors love this old style,” Urai Tangaeum tells me, with clear pride. “We want to keep the history of Benjarong alive here. The village isn’t just about jobs, it is about our love for Benjarong.”

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