Silver Production, the history of Karen Hill Tribe silver production and insights into how jewellery is produced for Luna Tree. From artisan to customer…….
Hill Tribe Silver Traditions
Traditionally, silver jewellery has been used as a store of wealth and as a means of adornment and beautification for the Hill Tribes of Thailand. Silver jewellery proudly worn enhances financial security, signifies wealth, status and spirituality within the tribe.
The Hill Tribe’s still use some silver in place of paper money occasionally, preferring something, that they consider retains its true value. On special occasions such as a birth or marriage silver is used for gifts and dowries.
Fleeing oppression from Burma, Tibet and Laos the Hill Tribes migrated to Thailand. They first settled here over a century ago. The largest tribal group is the Karen (Yang in Thai). It is Karen community which produce our exquisite silver.
Royal help for the Hill Tribes
Being traditional subsistence farmers and nomadic, settlement in Thailand was a huge adjustment to their way of life. Historically, the hill tribes were also traditional opium growers. As the Karen settlements grew within Thailand opium production was discouraged. However, a black market in drugs was established along side prostitution. These were dark days for the Karen people and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Thai Royal Family initiated a programme to provide alternative income, to help elevate them from poverty and illegal activity. This initiative enabled the Karen to understand the value of their traditional arts and crafts.
With government help the Karen moved from opium to produce other commercial crops such as rice, mango and corn and their traditional silversmithing expertise was enhanced with an extra training programme.
The Luna Tree Village
Huay Dtom (pronounced Hoy Tum) is situated in Lampang Province of Northern Thailand, South East of Chiang Mai. This is the village which produces all the silver for Luna Tree.
A village elder from Huay Dtom was one of the original people to receive direct training to assist in the elevation of his silversmithing skills during the Royal initiative. He subsequently taught to others within the village to become master silversmiths with skills now being passed down through generations.
Many of the families in Huay Dtom are involved with silver production. Everyone has their own family based creativity with designs, working methods and techniques. No family of silversmiths replicates another’s and the village silversmithing is run as an ethical cooperative enterprise.
Weaving at Huay Dtom
The women of Huay Dtom are also prolific weavers, producing the finest quality cloth on simple and traditional back strap looms. Their traditional clothing is all handwoven this way. The weavers of Huay Dtom now produce other items such as scarves, bags etc which are sold within the markets and bazaars of Chiang Mai.
Religion and a Plant based philosophy
Traditionally Karen life is dictated by the spirits, and they are a highly superstitious people. The Karen believe their ancestors taught them how to live in harmony with their natural surroundings. Working with the natural eco system of the forest for all their needs. This has carried forward with the embrace of Buddhism at Huay Dtom. The large Wat Phra Bat Huay Tom is the largest Wat (temple) in the area and is home to footprints of Buddha which bring many people on pilgrimage to the area. Most of the village are practicing Buddhists along side their more traditional animist rituals.
Following a Buddhist path, Huay Dtom is predominantly a plant based community and follow the philosophy of doing no harm to other living beings. Find out more about this here
This is a seasonal road side snack from one of the village food stalls. It is deep fried wild mushroom, collected from the forest. Delicious!
Huay Dtom produces three rice harvest’s a year and has an irrigation system in place to maintain the rice crops. They also grow soya, maize, corn, squash, salad crops and fruits such as banana, mango and lychee. Surplus stock from this subsistence farming is sold within the markets at nearby towns.
All the children of Huay Dtom attend school within the village between the ages of 7-15. The school was built by the Thai government about 25 years ago. The school resources are all government funded. To continue their studies after school leaving age they have to pay fees and travel away from the village. The income generated from silver production can help them to achieve this.
Most of the village can speak Thai fluently but prefer to speak their traditional Karen dialect within the village. The Karen are very proud of their culture and heritage. Despite their assimilation into Thai society and the encroaching modern world, they continue to hold on to their way of life against the odds with balance.
Each detailed silver component is painstakingly created by hand from fine silver. We like to use as much recycled silver as possible when we place our orders. Silver can be reworked time and time again with no reduction in quality. Therefore, using recycled silver is the best ethical approach we can take as a business.
Silver is melted and moulded into ingots and then flattened into sheets. This is then cut, shaped, moulded, soldered and stamped into the finished item.
Each piece is totally unique due to the handcrafted nature. No two beads, pendant or ring is exactly the same, just shinning out with stunningly beautiful handmade characteristics. The hand worked Karen Hill Tribe silver has a look, weight and feel all its own and offers the wearer an intimate connection directly back to the silversmith who produces each item.
The silver can be worked with surprising speed due to the skills of craftsmanship and the purity of the silver. It can take several years of practice to become masterful in silversmithing.
When an order is placed the raw silver is purchased and taken to the village. Depending on what is ordered at any time, the work is then divided out amongst the producers.
Help in the village
Farrar, is the matriarch of one such producer family. She is invaluable in organising the other workers and distributing the correct amount of silver to them. Farrar is 52 years old and a mother to 9 children. Her older children are all involved with the family silver business.
The silver is pressed through a rolling mill which flattens the silver into strips at the correct thickness to be worked.
This is then cut into smaller pieces or the shape of the design cut out directly with a stamp cutter.
The blanks are then worked by the skilled artisans who bring life and form to the silver components.
Log stumps are used as work stations. These stumps have indents the perfect size for each item worked. Simple tools and hammers help create 3 dimensional forms of the silver.
Designs can be cut out with scissors and then bent into shape using pliers.
Texture can be added to the silver before cutting and twisting into shape.
The detail is skilfully hammered into each piece with surprising speed and dexterity.
The training to become a silver worker can take many months, even years to perfect. Training is necessary to ensure the high quality of workmanship needed to create the finished pieces.
These skills are passed down through the generations of each family, ensuring that pieces retain their own characteristics.
All the tools required for silversmithing such as hammers, stamps, casting moulds etc are all made in the village.
Designs can be soldered together to create totally 3 dimensional beads. Findings such as hanging rings on pendants and earrings are soldered by hand onto each finished piece.
Inspired By Nature and our collaboration
The inspiration for all the designs of the jewellery comes from nature. The Karen people live close to the natural world. They work as subsistence farmers and have a very spiritual connection with their land.
The village is constantly producing new designs and prototypes for future products. The silversmiths here are extremely creative and enjoy the challenge of working in partnership with Luna Tree on new pieces. By sharing ideas we can collectively establish innovation and fresh exciting products. Our aim from working with this community of silversmiths is to help them achieve economic independence without sacrificing their traditional lifestyle and cultural heritage.