Features

Rawa Bening: A gem of a
market

From the outside, the Jakarta Gems Center looks like any other mall in East Jakarta.

Standing opposite the Jatinegara train station in bold primary colors, the three-storey air-conditioned complex with underground parking appears to be just another unremarkable addition to Jakarta’s mall-obsessed shopping culture. What the center has to offer is another story altogether.

Known locally as Pasar Rawa Bening, the newly renamed and reincarnated Jakarta Gems Center is an unlikely hub of culture, history, craftsmanship and superstition.

The name reveals the main attraction of the mall that claims to be one of the largest and most comprehensive marketplaces for gems and precious stones in Southeast Asia.

With around 1,000 stalls offering a wide array of stones such as amethyst from Kalimantan, opals from Banten, sapphires from Sri Lanka and agate from Central Java, the Jakarta Gems Center draws collectors from around the world searching for unique and precious stones.

While synthetic stones litter the stalls’ displays, most of the center’s wares are authentic pieces, available in rough and polished form.

Processing of local stones is done onsite, so that buyers can design their own jewellery, from the gold or silver setting to the size and cut of the inset stone.

One of the center’s most popular jewellery pieces are its large agate rings, worn traditionally by Javanese men, and believed by some to hold paranormal powers, bringing the wearer good luck, charisma, prosperity, and even healing powers.

These rings are prized for the intricate patterns found within the grain of the stone, featuring naturally occurring images of birds, dragons, fish, human faces, crosses, or the name of Allah in Arabic script. The crisper the image is, the more it is sought after by collectors looking for rare and unique pieces.

According to stall vendors, agate rings are valued more as a symbol of wealth by buyers today than as superstitious amulets. A large piece of red agate with a clear and contrasting image of a bird in the center can fetch a price upwards of Rp 5 million (US$557), serving as a conspicuous symbol of prosperity, if not providing mystic protection.

Those searching for spiritual protection also won’t be disappointed by the range of mystical and religious paraphernalia available at the center. Major world religions and beliefs are all represented, from Hindu statuettes, to Catholic prayer beads, Confucian icons in jade, and gold-plated Qur’anic inscriptions. Other auspicious objects including kris, cocoons, tusks, incense oils, eggs, horseshoes, fossilized tree roots, and shells represent the mystic beliefs of Java — although the vendors insist these are just for collection.

Head of the market’s trade cooperative, Darto Caswan, laughs at the suggestion of wearing stones for mystic power and protection.

“That’s all in the past,” he says. “These days we’ve already begun to develop. There are still those who come looking for stones for mystic purposes, or as remedies for illness, but for the most part the stones are just for fashion, or in the case of expensive stones, for prestige.”

Aside from the consumption habits and preferences of its visitors, much has changed at the Rawa Bening market through its recent transformation into the Jakarta Gems Center. While the area has long been renowned as a center for gems and precious stones, the market has only existed in its recent incarnation as a mall for less than six months.

Originally known as Rawa Bangkai, or the “corpse swamp”, the area is said to have been a dumping ground for bodies during the Dutch colonial era. Since then, the place has been variously known as Rawa Bunga, or “flower swamp” after the prevalence of the sex trade in the area in previous times, and finally Rawa Bening, the “shiny swamp” after building up a reputation as a marketplace for precious stones in the 1970s and 1980s.

After suffering fire damage suspected to be caused by electrical faults in mid-February, the new mall was officially opened by Governor Fauzi Bowo on May 12 earlier this year. Previously trading as an open-air market full of old-fashioned stone polishing contraptions, mobile street stalls and cigarette smoke, Rawa Bening market was moved into the new mall building as part of ongoing local government efforts to modernize Jakarta’s flea markets.

One stall vendor in the new mall admits he misses the atmosphere of the old market.

“We used to be able to smoke, and drink coffee while we minded the stalls,” he says. “Now we can’t do that anymore, because of the air-conditioning.”

Another vendor agrees that the atmosphere has changed, but says that the market has attracted new customers because of it.

“Before, the building was old and dirty. We always had visitors from places like Japan, Korea and Malaysia, but now we attract tourists from other places as well.”

The improved facilities of the new mall come at a price for stall vendors. One craftsman in the center’s polishing and welding workshop says that the increase in rent has meant that he can’t afford to employ an assistant at his stall.

He claims that the previous rent of Rp 500,000 (US$56) a month has now increased to Rp 2 million (US$223). However, he agrees that the number of visitors has also increased.

Closing only briefly for Friday prayers, the market is busy with merchants, shoppers, collectors and craftsmen. Despite the modern mall setting, sales are bargained furiously, and prices are cheap. Trays of polished stones gleam bright as candy, with the best ones singled out for prominent display.

The name has been changed, and the atmosphere chilled, but the market flourishes nonetheless.

“People still know this place as Pasar Rawa Bening,” says Darto Caswan at his stall of gems under fluorescent lights and glass cases.

“If you look on the map you won’t find it, but that is the name people know it by.”

It seems that joining Jakarta’s mall obsession is just the next stage for the market’s ever-evolving character, bringing mystical traditions into the modern mall — even if all the paranormal paraphernalia is “just for collection”.

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