Amid the street food stalls and mom-and-pop shops in Lad Phrao’s hectic Chok Chai 4 neighborhood, goldsmith shop Mongkon 108
hides behind deceptively outdated signage—like something you might find fronting a decades-old gold shop on Yaowarat Road. Inside, founder Pichanan “Pop” Sinsap
and his team work their magic on accessories, commemorative pieces, and more each day.
They aren’t hammering away at your basic gold bracelets, though. Here, Pichanan and company reimagine Buddhist accessories, taking a contemporary, if unorthodox, approach to creating gold casings for amulets.
“I think it’s important to modernize the way we wear amulets before they start to become irrelevant,” he explains. “A hybrid of old and new worlds is the way forward. You might say it’s like the sacred world’s ‘new normal.’”
Sacred Buddhist amulets hold a special place in Thai culture. All generations, young and old, wear them for luck or good fortune. Few tap into the tastes of young consumers like Pichanan does.
For the past five years, he has been applying fresh, modern designs to historic Buddhist art and making religious relics relevant to younger generations.
His clientele include working-age Thai nationals and overseas clients in Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Many of his local customers, somewhat surprisingly, are in their 20s. “Most of the time, they just want a nice accessory to commemorate their graduation or getting their first job,” says Pichanan.
The shop draws from further afield, too, and for different reasons.
“There’s one particular American client who has a penchant for gold casings for his old Spanish coins. He would come to my shop with these eccentric, Pirates of the Caribbean- esque designs,” he says. “Later I discovered that he has his own shop in New York.”
Besides creating fresh, neo-Buddhist designs, Pichanan and his team of goldsmiths provide guidance for clients who often come to them with outlandish designs. He says they try to walk them back a bit. “It’s very easy to get carried away and overdesign things that overshadow the beauty of the amulets. We don’t just flood our designs with thick gold and diamonds. We stick to the framework and traditions of Buddhist art but add a modern twist.”
Despite his lack of formal design training, Pichanan took to the business quickly and has now developed a repeatable formula for his designs. It’s one that walks the tightrope between respect for religious beliefs and style. “We still base our designs on old-school tigers, lions, naga, and the traditional Thai kanok design, but we put in different colors, or add some diamonds where we can. It’s a matter of mixing and matching to make it look modern but not random,” he says.
And unlike most types of businesses, Pichanan’s actually grew during the pandemic. That’s because it’s based on belief.
He notes how belief that a particular amulet can prevent outbreaks might seed greater interest in it and send the price of that relic soaring. That has led to a relative boom in the industry.
“More and more shops similar to mine have opened lately, which is a surprise given how the economy is now,” he admits.
In the next year or so, Pichanan aims to expand his business to develop the community around him. He hopes to open a specialty coffee cafe and art gallery in Chok Chai 4, a neighborhood he’s called home for 40 years.
“I want it to be more than just a cafe and a gallery: a communal space where you can hang out and share ideas,” he says. “Lad Phrao’s population makes it special. I feel like this area has a lot to offer me and many others in the future.”
Until then, he will keep hammering away, hoping to bring good fortune to Lad Phrao.
All images courtesy of Mongkon 108