Drawer 46: Silver: Thai Hill Tribes

 

“The Singular Spirit”

Week 46/Drawer 46: November 15, 2017: “The Singular Spirit”

For years I have bought “hill tribe” silver and only knew it was a recognizable style of workmanship made in Northern Thailand. Now I know so much I fear I shall bore you with my focus on the six tribes who make pieces like this fish centerpiece.  Read on.  Some names will be familiar to you.

First of all, they work in a special silver which, at 97%, is in between sterling (92.5% silver content) and fine silver (100% silver). High silver content produces a softer metal which tarnishes less.

Second, there are six tribes who, over the past 200 years, emigrated mostly from China and Tibet through thick forests and mountainous terrain to the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.

Third, the tribes retain their traditions in their clothing, their abundance of silver adornment, and their methods of making beads and jewelry. Their tools and processes are simple: silver ingots are flattened into sheets by pounding with a hammer.  Then they pound the sheets into a mold and something like this fish emerges.  They detail the piece—see fish scales—in their own signature style.

The most populous tribe at 300,000 is the Karen, originally from Myanmar. They live in stilt houses with their animals beneath.  They are expert elephant handlers (think logging and tourism); very friendly; and called the “long necks” due to the silver necklaces worn from collarbone to chin.

Next largest are the Hmong, many of whom were welcomed as refugees in the USA after the Vietnamese war. They came from the icy regions of Tibet and Mongolia; settled in Chiang Mai, a large and lovely city; and are identified by their traditional clothing of pleated skirts and black baggy pants, both with lots of embroidery.  Besides being silversmiths, they are dry rice farmers and may cultivate opium poppies.  They are very independent, preferring to live above 3000 feet.

The last tribe I’ll describe is the Mien (also called Yao) whose women are often photographed for their elaborate costumes and headpieces. They are considered the aristocrats of the region and have been making silver jewelry the longest. They are the only hill tribe with a written language and they use silver as their currency. They originate from Southern China, bringing their medieval religion, Taoism, with them, but many have converted to Christianity or Buddhism.

The remaining three are called Akha, Lahu and Lisu. All proud silversmiths.

The Drawer 46 necklace is full of trade beads, all with varying patina (read bumps and bruises from years of being traded), sterling silver and Naga shells (how I would love to tell you about the Naga tribe in the land-locked Himalayas who trade with shells and adorn themselves with shells, but no time for that story!) The fish centerpiece is a Karen Hill Tribe silver creation.

The necklace is 20“ long and the fish is 2.5“long.  Wear it with your silver earrings.  $99.

Trade beads are described in Drawers 12, 32 and 43.

 

Drawer 45: Lapis Lazuli

“May There Always Be Something Left Over”

 

My Chinese Apothecary Chest:   in 1994, it arrived via container to California from Hong Kong, where I discovered beading during my husband’s ex-pat assignment.   Serves as the repository for my beads.  Handcrafted.  It has 52 Drawers, mostly sorted by color.

2017 Challenge: Create a Necklace a Week, using only the Beads from one Drawer at a time. Voila!  52 Necklaces!

Week 45/Drawer 45: November 8, 2017: “May There Always Be Something Left Over”

The first time I ever heard the words Lapis Lazuli (lapis is Roman for stone; lazuli is Persian for blue) was when I was matriculating at Emmanuel College, Boston, looking forward to becoming a junior and wearing our class ring which is gold with a rectangle of lapis as its centerpiece, designed by Tiffany in 1920.

I was late to the lapis game. The inhabitants of NE Afghanistan knew it in the 7th millennium BC.  It was Egyptian King Tut’s funeral mask in 1323 BC.  The Western world didn’t catch on until lapis was imported to Europe in the Middle Ages where its powder was the choice of the great painters.  I’ll refer to my favorite:  Vermeer.  Check out the “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”  That blue paint is known as Ultramarine.  The color is still on every painter’s palette, but the ingredients have been synthetic since the early 1800’s.

Lapis is prized for its deep celestial blue color. It is a rock, not a crystal.  It is found in Afghani caves, not mines.  It sparkles with…gold?…no…with Fool’s Gold or pyrite.  There is an inferior form of lapis with white calcite streaks which I learned to avoid.  Just pay more for the gold flecks.

This week’s necklace has flecks in every piece of the larger beads. The smaller beads, which I had to add to keep the weight down, is a brighter blue with few sparkles (and no white!).  The sterling silver beads are a pleasing shape and further reduce the weight.

The centerpiece is magnificent for its large oval lapis, with lots of gold and a short streak of white, and for the Tibetan sterling silver base, carved with rich flourishes on the front and the back.

While living in Hong Kong, I loved browsing the many English bookstores. It was still British until the 1997 handover to China who promised “one country, two systems,” referring to the financial, free-market and democratically-governed systems of Hong Kong.  In my opinion, the promise is eroding.

One of the books I treasure is “A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols” and I looked up the fish symbol which is prominently featured on the centerpiece. The well-carved pair of fish on the front are slightly worn, leading me to envision the wearer rubbing it as a talisman.  Fish symbolize wealth which is so significant for Buddhists that it is one of their 8 symbols.  I named this piece for the colloquial phrase for wishing others wealth.

When fish appear in a pair, it signifies harmony, and is often given as a wedding gift.

On the back of this piece is what I interpret to be a stylized fish. Pay attention to the design skill of the silversmith:  beautiful flourishes, curves, almost rococo flair, expert three-dimensional detailing.

The necklace measures 19.5” and the centerpiece is 3.5” long by 2.75” wide. It weighs 8.2 ounces.  After test driving it, I would say it is not heavy/not light, but average.  Some of my necklaces are “three-hour”, this is a five-hour necklace!      Wear your silver earrings with it.  $139.

Drawer 33: Teal Blue

“Yin and Yang”

My Chinese Apothecary Chest:   in 1994, it arrived via container to California from Hong Kong, where I discovered beading during my husband’s ex-pat assignment.   Serves as the repository for my beads.  Handcrafted.  It has 52 Drawers, mostly sorted by color.

2017 Challenge: Create a Necklace a Week, using only the Beads from one Drawer at a time. Voila!  52 Necklaces!

Week 33/Drawer 33: August 16, 2017: “Yin and Yang”

I’m really going out on a limb this week as I attempt to make a case that my necklace embodies the principle of Yin and Yang. I will state it was an after-the-fact discovery as I stared at my finished necklace while searching for a title from my collection of pithy phrases.

Yin and Yang is a fundamental, ancient Chinese philosophy which states all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites (young-old, dark-light, etc.). These opposites attract and complement each other, and as the icon’s small dots  illustrate, each side has an element of the other…which is my necklace!

 

What I didn’t know until I researched it was Yin is feminine, black, provides spirit, is the winter solstice, orange, a tiger and many other attributes. Yang is masculine, white, provides form, is the summer solstice, blue, a dragon, and more.  I think I did marry the opposites by placing one after another, allowing them to attract and complement each other.

The necklace features two melon beads—marked by a distinctive ridged surface which gives the look of a melon. The larger ones are antique dyed onyx melon beads carved in Bali and its ridges reflect the roughed-up onyx au naturel.  The smaller beads are Chinese silver—they add lots of nickel which accounts for the dark silver color—with blue enamel applied to the ridges.  One example of yin and yang is the blue teal of the dyed onyx becomes the blue teal of the Chinese ridge.

I used small sterling silver spacers plus sterling silver wire to attach the centerpiece bead plus a hand-crafted sterling clasp.

The necklace is 20” long and the center dangle falls 1.75”. Wear your silver earrings with it; large or small will look good.  It is $99.

P.S.: I bought the onyx beads in Bali during our 1993-4 Southeast Asia sojourn.  Don and I returned to Bali about five years later.  It is idyllic and beautiful.  I will declare it to be my favorite Southeast Asia destination.  If you are curious, Venice is my favorite Western destination!

 

Drawer 31: Light-Medium Blue

“Something of an Asterick”

 Just like last week, I am focusing on the centerpiece while I am in the blue drawer. Only this time the centerpiece has a lot of orange, so, dear readers, I must cheat.  I must take the orange drops from Drawer 19 to make a great necklace.  Orange and blue are at opposite ends of the color wheel which makes them very compatible…not always true in our human relationships.

My compliments to fellow New Englander Stephanie Sersich (Topsham, Maine) for her wonderful Lampwork starfish. I met Stephanie at one of those gigantic bead shows in Oakland, CA, and found her here three years ago in the small but fabulous show the Bead Society holds each October in Watertown, MA.  Her starfish was alluring to me on all counts:  slightly irregular shape; polka dots, so many layers of scintillating colors!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is an asymmetrical necklace. They are a lot of fun to make and a challenge to balance.  I often choose to go asymmetrical when I have a few stunning beads I want to highlight.  In this piece, there were an excess of fabulous blue beads, none totaling more than a half-dozen.  So I gave it a whirl.

Here is a description of those beads, starting from the clasp: flat rectangular vintage medium blue; two American Art Glass with lampwork glass in between.  Then the most challenging section to balance:  two odd-shapes with a large Art Glass in between across from one odd-shape balanced with periwinkle ceramic beads. The polka dot lampwork beads were irresistible!   The only beads I had volumes of were the orange Czech glass drops, so they became the glue as well as the “pop” that holds the necklace together.

Only you, the viewer, knows if all this asymmetry worked.

The necklace is 18” and the starfish dangles 2”. The clasp is an orange glass circle with a silver toggle.  Matching earrings of American Art Glass and orange drops.  The set is $145.

See Week 17 for details on American Art Glass.

Note to Leticia S:  your necklace is on the way!!!