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.

Treasure

The two strand "Treasure" necklace is strung with heavy turquoise thread and “woven” through three turquoise beads every few inches.  It ends with a coral clasp around a vintage button. It measures 21” and the centerpiece is 3” long.  It is priced at $155 which includes shipping and insurance.

The two strand “Treasure” necklace is strung with heavy turquoise thread and “woven” through three turquoise beads every few inches. It ends with a coral clasp around a vintage button.
It measures 21” and the centerpiece is 3” long. It is priced at $155 which includes shipping and insurance.

 

Back in 1995 when I was learning how to make necklaces, the second class I took was called “Treasure Necklace” and I remembered how much I love to make them when my friend Penny gave me a broken down necklace of turquoise, jasper and pearls.

A treasure necklace is full of special things.  This necklace has Penny’s beads, supplanted by coral twigs, Czech glass reddish barrel beads, coral seed beads, a button clasp from my Mom’s button box…and those are minor compared to the centerpiece gems.

The dangling centerpieces of a ring and a Buddha are amazing!

The ring has a silver setting with decorative sterling silver balls around the base set with a coral bead, commonly traded among Tibetans.  I bought it from a Tibetan woman in an informal market in front of the fabulous Jokhang Temple in Barkhor Square, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.  While we were bartering, pilgrims behind us circumnavigated the temple which is a holy destination for Tibetans.

The ring is so large, it was obviously her husband’s whom I envisioned as a warrior of great girth.  I bought it in 1993 since when it has been a much touched talisman; but I could never figure how to place it in a necklace…until now. To say it is a treasure underestimates it.

Well, since I am a person  compelled to fill spaces, I stumbled across the “Laughing Buddha” and didn’t he just fit in the ……space?!  It is a contemporary bead, bought locally and made of resin.  However this Buddha has a long history:  in the Song Dynasty, China, in 1000 AD, the Laughing Buddha, symbol of naïve geniality, became the most popular god in Eastern Asia.

The two strand necklace is strung with heavy turquoise thread and “woven” through three of Penny’s turquoise beads every few inches.  It ends with a coral clasp around a vintage button.

It measures 21” and the centerpiece is 3” long.  It is priced at $155 which includes shipping and insurance.