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Hill Tribe Silver Bead : From the Hand of the Hill

Hill tribe silver

Although Thai and other Asian cultures prize gold, the hill tribes do not use it – except in teeth, even if they could afford gold. They admire the qualities of gold jewelry, but as a point of fashion they feel silver goes best with their costumes. A piece of silver jewelry is usually large and highly visible, giving the wearer a feeling of owning something solid. Much of the jewelry they wear they have owned since childhood, and they regard it as almost part of their bodies.

They like to finger their silver, taking pleasure in its cool, smooth feel. It plays an important role at social gatherings, not only because it denotes wealth and prestige, but also because of its decorative quantity.

In 1980 the Karen people got some help by Jewelry Occupate Association that is the Lamphun Hill Tribes Development Center, Community Development Center, and UNICEF. Presently this project has finished. Today the Kareans have established the silver skill group and run a self sufficient silver business. Each group has 5-10 families and each have their unique designs. The groups will never copy another's style. Each group's work is unique.

Product design

Although a silversmith may be able to copy any tribe’s design, most of the tribes are now borrowing so freely from one another that it has become almost impossible to identify the design of any silver piece as traditional to one tribe. Some of the traditional design are being lost or interchanged with other tribes because poor tribe people have been selling their jewelry in exchange for trade goods or to tourists for the last 30 years

All of these pieces are made at a simple forge by hammering and drawing – process whereby wires are pulled through increasingly smaller holes until they are of designs to a silver ornament. Chasing involves carving patterns into the silver with sharp instrument. In appliqué, pieces of silver are “brown” onto the silver surface using flux and flame to cause cohesion. Reposes work pushes designs onto the silver by hammering from the reverse side. Moulds are also used, both for poured shapes and for hammered ones.

Most of Karen's silver designs are inspired by the natural environment they are surrounded by. For example; local flowers, elephants, wild insects, and fish. Some designs are their traditional designs that have handed down from ancient times; ex. spiral, eyes and bullet printed. Some designs are commissioned by merchants in Chaingmai.

Being between 99.5% and 99.9% pure silver, Karen silver has a higher silver content than Sterling silver product. It's just the solder used to fuse the silver components together that makes up the last fractions of a percent. Consequently, it has a weight, bright satin color, and feel, all of its own.