The Sword and the Serge
This article focuses on the first wave of foreigners to ever work in Ayutthaya’s industrial parks. This initial expatriate boom started in the 1990s and continues today. This material is based on an interview with a sometimes frustrated expatriate who sought to invest in a handicraft village that makes knives and swords.
Handicraft villages are abundant across the Ayutthaya province. Local communities produce a number of souvenir items ranging from stone carvings, wooden masks, ceramic goods, drums and other musical instruments, and even Thai-style houses. Perhaps the most impressive handicraft of them all comes from the Aranyik village that makes high quality swords, daggers, kitchenware, and gardening tools. Their craftsmanship extends back to the Ayutthaya period, in which weaponry was needed for ceaseless wars with the Burmese, Angkor, and the Lanna kingdoms. The Aranyik village originated from Lao residents, who lived along the banks of the Pasak River (off the island, on the northeastern side). These early migrants became prized craftsmen and this tradition has carried on today. Unfortunately, the new village location is off-the-beaten track. It is a struggle to find transportation for a visit. Moreover, direct business transactions can be difficult for speakers of English and other non-Thai languages. In response, one innovative foreigner, Serge Naegelin, has started his own company: (www.cozun.com).In the mid-1990s a new industrial zone was established in Ayutthaya. Serge came to this city in 1995 as a part of the first wave of managers that set up foreign companies in the area. Before long, he became a regular customer at one of Ayutthaya’s first western-style nightclubs, the Knock-on-Wood, and eventually he found himself helping out behind the bar of the Moon Café – which opened in the same year as his arrival. Serge became one of the first full-fledged expatriates in Ayutthaya, and he remains the only Luxembourgian to earn this honor. Being of a stout business-mind, Serge has managed to escape employment as an English teacher and moved to more profitable enterprises. His company works with the most-skilled craftsmen of the Aranyik village to produce top-quality – custom-designed – swords, daggers, and knives. Over the years he has developed strong relationship with these villagers and has even invested in one family by building a roof over its forge.
Serge takes ethnographic weaponry very seriously. He studies the fine details and historical background of all the merchandise that his company produces. These days he is a primary source to find information about Thailand’s heritage of weaponry. Naturally, this is reflected in his merchandise as well. His company customizes products for collectors that know what they are looking for; not cheap souvenirs that tourists can only use to pop bubble gum. The craftsmanship of the Aranyik villagers, in coordination with Serge, can make even a pacifist such as myself want to weld a weapon. Therefore, I caught up with Serge recently for an interview.
1) How did somebody from Luxembourg end up in Ayutthaya?
Because of my first job: administration manager and quality supervisor in a car lamp factory.
2) What was Ayutthaya like when you arrived?
Smaller, much smaller, and less active at night. There was only a choice of a handful of places to go. Today, I only know of one place that has survived from that time, and that is the “Moon Café” [established 1995 c].
3) Can you describe your business in Ayutthaya?
I am working on getting exclusive rights to export Thai swordsmanship, meaning present day Thai swords, called Darb or Dha. The main source is Aranyik, a village about 25 minutes from Ayutthaya that has been making knives, daggers and swords for about 300 to 400 years now. It provided the weapons for the Kingdom when Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam. Another source is Chiang Mai but that is a project in progress. From the beginning, the intention was to sell handmade crafts from the entire country, yet the swords seem to do well - maybe I’ll add other crafts later (still thinking about it). Oh, I do also offer tableware made in Aranyik.
4) How did you stumble onto the Aranyik village?
A friend of mine (my neighbor) from Wales had been there before and wanted to go again to buy some knives. I decided to go with him - I had some time as I had stopped working for the factory 2 months earlier - and within an hour on site I recognized a business opportunity. Many crafters in Asia have trouble exporting and dealing with foreigners because of the language and mentality barriers.
5) Can you tell me something about the ethnographic weaponry of Thailand?
I could but I do not know where to begin. I think about bringing a book together, but not in the near future - perhaps 5 years. All I will say now is that the way the swords are made today is not how these were fabricated 100 years ago and that the choices are/were vast. There were important differences between northern, southern and central Thailand/Siam made swords, the variation being mainly the shapes of the blades and the epoch when they were forged … but you got me lecturing, so I better stop before I begin transforming this interview into an essay.
6) I understand that the origin of these blacksmiths were from Lao. Who is making these swords and knives today?
The knowledge and craftsmanship may indeed originate in Lao - perhaps as far as China - but as mentioned before, the swords were produced where needed - Sukkothai, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Yala - when needed. All over the country, the local smiths, when not manufacturing weapons, were producing agricultural tools and doing other metalwork. Nowadays, it is pretty much the same, unless the smith can make a living making blades which are their own design – either replicas or submitted custom designs – they will work on other jobs requiring their skills. Today’s smiths can still be found all over the country, yet they have no guild and are a hard source to find. I have the intention of setting up a kind of guild, if not just for comprehensive data collection about the blacksmithing in Thailand. Even if the smiths admit it with difficulty, they know of, or at least heard from, other smiths at one convention or exhibition.
7) Do you have a particular style of dagger or sword that you are fond of?
That’s a tricky one: I noticed that with time one can find so many blades that choosing a favorite is becoming pointless as every new acquisition or design has its good and less positive sides - like woman perhaps. I have several favorites that have nothing in common except for being blades.
8) What are some of your top selling weaponry?
Swords mainly, build with hardened spring steel for the blade - it still is referred as extra hard high carbon steel on my website, but I’ll update this soon.
9) How hard is it for customers to receive these packages from Thailand? Are there any special custom problems to think about?
Well, depending on your local post office and how it handles or stores large parcels, you better be home or leave a note or inform or contact those in charge there when your package is supposedly arriving. There were a few cases when my customers were absent too long and the post was about to send the package back to me - it happened once actually, but I haven’t found out why, the client hasn’t replied to me yet why he hadn’t picked up his sword - and I have to pay the return charges of course (bummer!). The better, most secure and fastest (about 10 days for the USA and Europe), yet more expensive way to receive the sword is via the EMS posting system. Still reliable, less expensive, and slightly slower (15 days for the same destinations mentioned previously) is by air; cheaper again is by SAL economy air (slower again too, about 1 month) and finally we have the surface parcel that takes 6 to 8 months to arrive in the USA or Europe.
Now, about customs, for me exporting is no problem. The hindrance lies with the customer’s country’s custom regulations. After I ship the sword, I take no responsibility over whatever happens to it within the customer’s country (besides getting it send back of course).
10) Can customers have material custom-made? What are some of the unusual request that you have had?
Custom made is what I try to insist on, as each sword should reflect its possessor’s character. It must have its individuality and personality. And that is why you may already customize your sword on my site by choosing the style, blade shape, engravings and more. I also realize that this may put some customers off, because they do not know what to choose and get confused. So I’m working on building up a stock and have readily available articles for the more impulsive buyers.
About unusual requests, yes of course there are many. The biggest one was a combination of three offered style, plus a color that was not proposed, and a slight change in the suggested blade shape. Then I also had a few awkward demands about engravings to be added - still, I liked one of them which was a depiction of a phoenix (actually it really looked great, I still have the photographs).
11) Can you tell me more about the Pattani folded metal daggers?
In the South you mean? The evidence shows that the Malaysians or Muslim have something to do with it, and that is quite a certainty. The blade craft is made of what is called ‘ Damascus steel ‘ (a Persian creation, I believe), which consists of hammering/forging different types and shapes of steel together to obtain a desired pattern. The objective is also to reach a differential temper mix of steels to get hardness yet flexibility into the blade (if it is too rigid, it may become brittle and break too easily).
Another particularity is the shape of the blade, called keris or kris, which is undulated, like a serpent a bit. There are many sorts with many characteristics, varying in styles and meanings. Javanese, Indonesian and some Filipino krisses have their own vast variations. What I guess they all have in common, though, is how that weapon shall be handled: each posses its own spirit that sleeps inside the protective sheath or scabbard. It will awake when taken out, and you must always take the blade entirely out or this is a sign of bad omen because you confuse the blade’s spirit - or something like that.
12) How about the Makkassar kriss daggers?
Mmmhhh, I think I elaborated on the question above already. I may add that each adult male Muslim is supposed to carry his keris dagger, and that a Northern Thai keris is not necessarily looking the same as a Southern one … but there I go lecturing again. There is simply too much to add to this theme. It’s better to look for a good website about it. If you want I can forward you some good addresses.
13) Does your company also sell other metal products?
Yes, as I mentioned in a previous question, I also offer tableware articles from Aranyik, this being cutlery, bowls, plates and other products, all made of stainless steel.
14) Are you looking for distributors or resellers outside the country?
Constantly! I’ll try some marketing when my stock is ready. The objective is Krabi Krabong (the Thai martial art of fighting with weapons) schools, sword enthusiasts (that I expect to attract via various magazines about knives and blades) and collectors, the occasional buyer that would find one of my products in a shop, and resellers such as weapon shops and so on. The main hindrance in this, or the internet business, is that the sold objects are often out of reach. They can’t be touched, felt, observed, and analyzed on site. So that is why I always ask a satisfied customer (which they all are of course) to tell and show his friends as soon he acquired his sword (or knife/knives).
15) How can somebody contact you to buy your products?