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 43: Mali Wedding Beads

“First Person Narrator”

Week 43/Drawer 43: October 25, 2017: “First Person Narrator”

In rural Mali, West Africa, a bride is given a strand of these glass wedding beads on the eve of her wedding. It is the Fulani tribe, which is 2.5 million strong, that has decorated their daughters with beads for over a century.  For equally as long, these pressed glass* bulbous beads were expressly made for the African trade in Bohemia*.  The Fulani tribe likes them because their shape is so feminine.  They were originally made in that shape from local clay; the glass ones gave families a new sense of style and status.

I ended up reading a lot about Mali, formerly French Sudan, which became truly independent with democratic elections in 1992. This land-locked country is twice the size of Texas and now has a population of 18 million.  The Sahara Desert takes up 68% of the acreage.  Many tribes are semi-nomads.  And guess who is a minority tribe in the desert?  The famous traders we met in Drawer 12—the Tuaregs!**

It was delightful reading about weddings: only Thursday or Sunday are good luck days for marriage; first a civil marriage in which the bride and groom individually state whether they want a monogamous or polygamous marriage.  Choice of the former has always been limited to single digits.  Then the bride is washed by the female adults; an Islamic ceremony follows; then there are several days of celebrating when family drops by.  Since families are polygamous with many members, they have to introduce themselves to each other!  The groom’s dowry is as many kola nuts (a stimulant) as he can afford which he presents to his father-in-law who shares it with wedding guests.

I admit to being culturally fascinated by Mali, but I must move on to the necklace. It sits on the neck as pictured:  the very center lies flat and, as it curves up to the neck, some beads rest on top of each other, creating a certain movement.  Each bead is separated by an interesting small Venetian glass bead that is clear with thin, closely-placed white stripes, resulting in a milky tone.

Each bead is 1” high and 5/8” diameter. It doesn’t feel heavy to me, but it may be a three-hour necklace for some:  a party necklace; a ladies lunch necklace.  When I put it on after weighing myself, the digital scale did not change.

It is 18” and earrings are included. The clasp and the ear piece are matching hammered silver metal.  $115.

*See Drawer 30 dated 7-26-17 for Bohemia and pressed glass story.

**See Drawer 12 dated 3-22-17 for the Tuareg story.

Drawer 32: Cobalt Blue

“Fact from Legends”

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 32/Drawer 32: August 9, 2017: “Fact from Legends”

This centerpiece is part of a 1940’s lampshade from Shanghai. And it is amazing that it exists at all!  Shall I tell you why?

China was ruled by Mao Zedong from 1949, when he declared the People’s Republic of China was under one-party rule, until his death in 1976. The last ten years of his regime is known as The Cultural Revolution which aimed to purge capitalists and traditionalists from Chinese society in order to impose his own communist ideology. The purged were humiliated publicly; property was seized; youth were made to go to the countryside to learn from peasants; historical artifacts, such as Confucius’ birthplace, were destroyed; cultural and religious sites were ransacked; the only movies, books and theatre allowed were propaganda.  Mao said he killed 1.5 million people; the true number is alleged to be up to 6 million.

When we lived in Hong Kong from 1993-4, I read many books on the Cultural Revolution, fascinated by the stories told. I also searched the antique shops for cultural artifacts—and found the pieces of the lampshade.  The antiquarian told me how wealthy families managed to hide their treasures, mostly by burying them in the ground.  I also purchased a few finely-embroidered patches mandarins wore on their robes in the Imperial Court which ended in 1912.

As for the necklace, the beads are mostly cobalt Czech glass. The 14 cylinder beads are pre-war Bohemia pressed glass (see Drawer 30 for that history); the four small circles, plus the earrings, are glass beads made in Holland starting in the 1800’s for trade in Africa.  The lampshade centerpiece is enamel on copper and is trimmed in cobalt blue.  The clasp is glass with a sterling silver hook I fashioned.

The two-strand necklace measures 23.5”plus 2.5” for the centerpiece and dangles. The earrings are 1.5” long.  The set is $119.

This is a necklace I made some time ago.  It features freshwater pearls, garnet and seed beads.  I removed the tassels from the top piece and added a seed bead tassel.

There are four long single tassels hanging from the top piece and three pearl and garnet  single tassels from the bottom, between the long original silk tassels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are three of the four enamel-on-copper pieces from a 1940 Shanghai chandelier that I still have for future projects.

Drawer 27: Vaseline Beads

“Things Rare and Strange”

 

 

My Apothecary Chest: in 1994, it arrived via container to California from Hong Kong, where I discovered beading during an 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 27/Drawer 27: July 5, 2017: “Things Rare and Strange”

 When I found these opaque aqua beads in a section of Drawer 27, I gasped at their beauty, mostly due to the intensity of their color. As I fondled them, I realized there were subtle differences in their aqua shades; I also observed they were so old that their faceted surfaces had become smooth! They are trade beads, after all. These discoveries made this strand mysterious—what secrets were they sheltering?

Since the secrets are unknowable, let me address “What the heck are Vaseline Beads?”

Beads have been made in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) since the Romans occupied it in 400 AD. Until 1400, they mostly made rosary beads.  In the 1500’s, a major expansion in bead-making began, attracting Spanish, Italian and English traders.  In 1800, the Industrial Revolution invented machines that produced pressed glass beads in great volume, different designs, and at lower prices.

One of those innovations was fluorescent Vaseline glassware and beads. The fluorescence was created by the adding uranium salts to the glass.  They kept lowering the amount of uranium to the 1-2% that worked.  It actually shone in the dark!  Today, with electric lights, a black light is needed to see the fluorescence.

Vaseline beads had their heyday from 1900 to 1920 and continued to be made until artisans lost their ability to buy uranium when governments became universal procurers in the 1940’s.

 

 

 

 

 

Typical Vaseline beads are transparent in color and usually yellowish green.  The short strand third from left look to me like they may be shine-in-the-dark variety! 

 

They were so named because their color resembled the petroleum jelly sold in the 1900’s under the Vaseline label.  Doesn’t that sound so mundane for beads made from uranium?

My opaque aqua beads are called Vaseline Beads, but they are a variation: during the Depression, iron oxide (a glass-ceramic) was added to the formula to create opacity.

Today’s collections of Depression glass, milk glass, Fire King tableware, etc. all have roots in Bohemia, uranium, and iron oxide!

Before closing, let me name the other beads I used in this necklace: aqua serpentine which is a cousin of jade; Czech glass “spades” drops; round matte glass which looks like ceramic due to iron oxide.  Also I was quite pleased to find an aqua glass circle in my “creative clasp stash” and made a sterling silver toggle for it.

The necklace is 20”. $115.

Drawer 12: Carnelian

“legendary Heroes”

Week 12/Drawer 12: March 22, 2017: “Legendary Heroes”

I do love carnelian. It is a semi-precious stone that is found in all shades of brown, almost every one tinged with orange.  Now you know why I love it!

I probably say I love this or that bead in every blog. I suppose that’s why I’m still beading 23 years on!

Carnelian is a member of the Quartz family. It is considered the stone of creativity, individuality and courage.

This necklace started with the centerpiece, named a talhakimt. Over the years, I have purchased every interesting one I have seen and parcel them out into necklaces every few years.  They are always based on the triangle/circle design.  I have only one more truly interesting one left plus about 5 smaller ones that were originally men’s rings.  The design feels very graphic and crisp to me; contemporary rather than ethnic.

Talhakimts such as this one were carved of large banded agate in the nineteenth century in Idar-Oberstein, a famous stone cutting center in Germany, a location that means more to bead nuts than the less-obsessed. They were favored by the Tuareg people, pastoral nomads who controlled several Sahara trading routes, and are descendants of the true Berbers who predated the Romans in their settlements.  This rare talisman adorned Tuareg women’s hair.  I found it interesting to learn the Tuaregs are a matrilineal society.

It is always a design challenge to figure out how to attach the unusual centerpieces, which I love to collect, to my necklace. From the get-go I knew this necklace would be pure carnelian:  therein was the attachment answer.  I found a bag with some very old carnelian (see above photo) which was also small in size.  No two alike…all the better to see the varying colors of carnelian!  Also notice their patina (wear)…visualize them a century ago in a Tuareg’s bag in a camel caravan travelling across the Sahara to a trading bazaar at the next oasis!

It should be no surprise that beads were money in many sociieties, from the Tuaregs to American Indians who invented heishi [pronounced “he she”], which are the small brass spacers used in this necklace. Our forebears, however, used shell as their money.  Today heishi are any small round beads made by hand from natural materials.

The necklace itself is designed with highly polished carnelian nuggets separated by brass heishi.

This necklace is 23” long with a brass clasp. The talhakimt is 3”.  Wear with your gold earrings.  $99.