|Timeless appeal: Gemstone pictures are not affected by temperature or the environment, and are easy to clean. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
|Shining example: A local artist sprinkles powdered gems onto a canvas.
|A gem of a painting: A landscape painting made from numerous types of gemstone collected in Luc Yen District.
Dao Trong Cuong, 54, is considered the inventor of the art in Viet Nam of using powdered gemstones to make paintings. Minh Thu
An artist carefully sprinkles tiny gemstones across a painting, which, when finished, sparkles attractively.
Dao Trong Cuong, 54, owner of Than Chau Ngoc Viet, the most prestigious gemstone painting company in Viet Nam, is considered the inventor of the art, having kicked off his career as a gemstone miner in Luc Yen District, in the northern province of Yen Bai, in the 1980's.
The gemstone exploitation industry has churned up such highly valued marvels as spinel, opal, jadeite, emerald, ruby, blue sapphire and yellow sapphire stones over the last 30 years.
During the manipulation process, a lot of cast off material is created. Many broken stones end up as rejects purchased by Thai and Chinese merchants for next to nothing.
The question as to the value of such rejects bothered Cuong for years until he travelled to Thailand and encountered paintings made with crushed gemstone pieces, as tiny as salt.
Returning to Viet Nam, he decided to create his own paintings using broken local gemstones and special adhesives.
Finishing his first gemstone painting in 2000, he confidently declared it to be of excellent quality compared to rival products.
"The paintings are made of valuable local materials that can last a lifetime," he said.
Cuong's paintings have become so popular that the State even ordered the Than Chau Ngoc Viet Company to make some as gifts for visiting heads of state.
Luc Yen locals have themselves started saving gemstone rejects to make and sell paintings, generating considerable income.
Creating a gemstone painting is not an easy process, said Tran Thi Dung, a local artisan who spent five months learning the technique.
Gemstones are firstly classified into different colours, washed and when dry, pounded into powder, which is in turn screened and cleaned carefully.
"This phase is very important to guarantee a painting's longevity," Dung said, adding, "we pound around 0.5kg of gemstones per day."
Artists then create a sample painting covered with a transparent mica board on which the gemstone powder is sprinkled. The painting is finished off with glue used to fix the gemstone powder in place.
Artists often cover colourful gemstones with a layer of white marble powder to create a firm background.
Luc Yen gemstones provide around 30 different colours, some of which are mixed together to create new varieties.
Gemstone paintings are based on original folk works like Dong Ho paintings of animals and human activities and Hang Trong paintings of beautiful women and international fine arts masterpieces.
Nowadays, artists also create paintings to order.
"Gemstone pictures aren't affected by either temperature or environment," said Nguyen Kim Vuong, owner of a gemstone paintings gallery on 174 Tran Duy Hung Street, Ha Noi.
"You can even use a soft brush to wash dirt off," he added.
The price of a gemstone painting depends on size and materials, which customers are free to choose themselves, Vuong said.
"While ruby and sapphire stones are more expensive than others, most customers can't tell the difference. Profits can be made by using lower quality stones or ones imported from abroad," he explained.
The type of glue also determines a painting's durability, according to Vuong, who thinks artisans often fail to pay adequate attention to quality.
"If gemstones are ground by industrial machines, they will be mixed with iron dust chipped out during the process. After a long time, the iron will oxidise and damage the painting."
"Materials in Viet Nam are hand pounded with a pestle and mortar and washed carefully," he explained.
However, local artists also pay little attention to decoration, he noted. When the paintings are exported to foreign markets, their modest frames are replaced with more expensive and sophisticated ones, which help boost value up.
"Some people may think a gemstone painting is much more expensive than an oil on canvas. A good frame's price abroad is equivalent to a painting's price at home, however."
Together with leaf paintings, sand paintings and bamboo collages, gemstone paintings enrich Vietnamese fine arts and prove the creativity and diligence of local artists. — VNS