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 39: Vintage Lucite

“Poetry and Prose”

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 39/Drawer 39: September 27, 2017: “Poetry and Prose ”

I’ve always loved buying vintage plastic—oops, Lucite—beads. In fact, most of my Lucite are from the same vendor who had a distinctive grey price tag.  Her story was she found a cache of them in a warehouse…  Who knows?  They have great colors and are easy to use.

Lucite was developed by DuPont in 1937 as a clear acrylic plastic and was widely used by the military: it was very hard and could be easily shaped.  One use was for the nose of bomber planes!  DuPont was smart enough to license this new material, and costume jewelry designers jumped on it.  Remember the name Trifari?  They were the first costume jewelry manufacturer to incorporate Lucite into their designs.  Another company of that era, Coro, followed suit.

By the 1950’s, Lucite was used for purses, stiletto heels, and jewelers loved putting rhinestones in and on their Lucite jewelry. In the ”mod” 60’s, it was big as black and white Op Art styles.  It faded and returned as neon jewelry in the 80’s.

This necklace uses up my supply of Lucite discs in black and a cerise red. There are additional red beads leading up to the Bakelite clasp.

Bakelite was another famous brand of plastic invented by Leo Baekeland in 1909. It too was used in the Thirties and Forties by jewelry artists.  It came in rods of all sizes and in great colors.  Artists appreciated that it could be carved and polished, thereby allowing them to put their marks on it, whereas Lucite designs were made in molds.  I appreciate that the clasp has more artistic expression than the beads do.

This lightweight and unbreakable necklace is 19” long and is $69.

I have a Bakelite story from our six years at a Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, weekend house. I’ll preface it by saying I do believe all 3800 citizens of this adorable hamlet pride themselves on eccentricity in themselves, their homes and their dogs.  It was a wonderful place to live!!!

Since there is no mail delivery, a daily trip to the Post Office is necessary. We always stood in the line of the Bakelite clerk:  a friendly gal with a mane of dark hair and an armful of colorful Bakelite bangles.  I too loved those bangles and had five of them, but I was developing arthritis in my thumbs and they were becoming difficult to put on. One day I asked her if she wanted to buy them and she eagerly nodded yes.  So I sold them to her for $100 in 1998.  Today one Bakelite bangle is $155 on eBay!

 

Drawer 34: Cinnabar

“Illusionist”

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 34/Drawer 34: August 23, 2017: “Illusionist”

Cinnabar is an intriguing name. Sometimes I call it “Chinese Red”, especially if I am referring to furniture or antique wood items.  It is a terrific color for bead jewelry since it seems to flatter all skin tones.  I buy cinnabar whenever I see it.  The more typical beads are carved, but my favorites are these large smooth and very light beads from Drawer 34.

Cinnabar has been used in China since the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) when its name evolved from “red cinnamon”. Cinnabar is found in every mineral deposit that contains mercury.  The Chinese avoided the toxic effects of mercury by coating it with lacquer, thereby creating their famous lacquerware.  Today the toxic pigment is replaced with a resin-based polymer.  All the famous Renaissance painters  loved their scarlet pigment called vermillion made possible by mercury; today’s artists use the polymer version in their oils or acrylics.

In this necklace, I separated the cinnabar beads with some Kris rings I found in Bali.  Needless to say, they have an interesting history also:  they are one of three components in the dagger found in Bali (also Thailand and a few other places); between the wood or silver hilt and the iconic wavy blade sits the Kris ring, historically red rubies, but glass and brass in my version.

The oversize brass hook-and-eye clasp suits the large cinnabar beads which are 1” in diameter…but let me emphasize they are very light in weight. 20” long. Small cinnabar earrings included (or wear your own gold earrings).  $95.