Cambodian gems, long synonymous with quality, have not lost their luster among Chinese tourists who are propping up the trade despite the waning mining industry, according to dealers at Thursday’s Cambodia Gem and Jewelry Fair.
Sellers at the exhibition hall on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich said Chinese people, who make up the second largest group of tourists to the country, have been increasingly buying Cambodian stones.
“I noticed that over the last few years Chinese tourists have come to Cambodia a lot and have been buying Cambodian stones for consumption, not investment,” said Chan Crisna, owner of DVS Royal gem shop.
Just over 463,000 Chinese nationals visited Cambodia last year, aided by more direct flights to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and the government has ambitious plans to attract at least 1.3 million Chinese tourists by 2018.
Ms. Crisna, who studied gemology in Canada and has been in the business for 35 years, said Chinese people are particularly fond of rubies, which—along with sapphires mined from gem hub Pailin province—are widely considered to be among the highest quality in the world.
While stones are mined in other provinces, such as Takeo, Kompong Thom and Ratanakkiri, they are primarily lower-value minerals and gems such as topaz and zircon.
“They only want to buy Cambodian rubies because the reputation of Cambodian stones has been passed on from generation to generation,” Ms. Crisna said.
Nhim Sophorn, part owner of Chim Lim Hoeun jewelry dealer, said her business has increased 10 percent each year, driven by the rise in Chinese customers who now account for 40 percent of her sales as opposed to just 10 percent two years ago.
But for both sellers the demand for locally sourced high value stones is far outstripping supply, which is having a knock-on effect on the price.
“For now it’s not enough. We don’t have enough stones as demand is increasing faster than we can supply,” said Ms. Sophorn.
“Two years ago, I was selling a one-carat ruby for about $200. Now, the price is $300 but the rising price is no problem. The Chinese are still interested in buying.”
The fall of Pailin’s reign as gem center of the country came at the tail end of the 1990s following the heavy mining of Thai companies, which were granted concessions by the Khmer Rouge.
The scarcity has required foreign traders to fill the gap in supply for Chinese buyers, said Lien Tai, owner of Taishan Gems.
“There are very few gems from Pailin so I import mainly from Thailand and Mozambique,” he said, adding only 10 percent of his gem sales are Cambodian stones.
Ms. Crisna, of DVS Royal, suggested one way of reinvigorating the domestic mining industry, would be for the Ministry of Mines and Energy to train young people in mining and assessing stones.
“The government should create a working group to inspect and ensure companies are not selling counterfeit products,” she said.
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