The story of Thai jewelry is a fascinating blend of history and varied cultural traditions!
Hill Tribe Silver
Perhaps the most famous of all Thai jewelry is Hill Tribe Silver. You may have spotted it online, or even own a few pieces yourself! Characterized by beautiful tribal and nature motifs, this jewelry has been crafted for generations by the country’s hill tribes. Hill tribes refer to the ethnic groups who reside in the Northern and Western regions of Thailand. The largest of these groups is the Karen hill tribe, semi-nomads hailing from South China who live around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the Myanmar border.
Initially, jewelry making was reserved for the tribes’ own use, as jewelry was a symbol of affluence and social status. It didn’t become a major trade until the mid to late 20th century. Originally, hill tribes earned their living as farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. Part of the infamous Golden Triangle, their major cash crop was opium.
Unsurprisingly, this posed a huge problem for the Thai government. In 1969, Thai ruler King Bhumipol Adulyadej, initiated a rehabilitation project whose goal was to replace the illicit export with more legal forms of revenue. Known as the Royal Project, it trained the Karen tribe to grow rotational food crops instead of opium. Though silver-making was already a tradition, many farmers took up silversmithing to generate additional income.
Karen jewelry is now popular worldwide for its hand-made pieces. Beads, earrings, clasps, pendants, intricate armbands and earplugs in classic designs go superbly with both Thai and international fashion. Several humanitarian agencies, aiming to help the tribes achieve economic independence without sacrificing their traditional lifestyle, have initiated village-based projects to market their jewelry and handicrafts and offer training in design and quality control.
Thai silver jewelry is noted for its high silver content, its purity ranging between 95% – 99.9%. Once a design has been assembled, parts of it are oxidized by submerging or spraying in household bleach and left to dry. Karen craftsmen combine a bronze alloy with silver to make a strong soldering solution that also keeps the silver’s luster intact. Jewelry is usually scrubbed inside a cotton bag stuffed with rice-husk, limes and their leaves and dishwashing detergent. It is again sun-dried and goes through a quality control inspection before being packed.
In addition to traditional Hill Tribe Silver, the region of Chiang Mai is famed for silver jewelry. Under the early Hindu influence, silverware was confined to items of ritual worship and ceremonial use. About seven centuries ago, silver tooling emerged as a prominent craft, partly due to skills brought in by Burmese refugees fleeing the decline of the Pagan Empire. This eventually led to the development of a distinct style known as northern Thai silverware, which gradually evolved as the Thais migrated southwards.
Gold and Gemstones
Though tribal jewelry is Thailand’s most famous handicraft, gold and gemstone jewelry are just as prevalent. Gold craft traveled to Thailand some 2000 years ago through Hindu settlers from east and south India. Their techniques were imbibed by the Dvaravati Mons of the Chao Phraya Basin who greatly influenced the craft in the rising Khmer civilization.
Thailand has extensive mineral deposits and is renowned for gemstones, though mining has declined over time. The Mons favored rubies in their gold jewelry. The tradition of gold and gem-based jewelry reached its height during the Ayutthaya Era when the rulers commissioned magnificent gold crowns, swords and even footwear embellished with glittering stones. Since the twentieth century, jewelry ceased to be a royal preserve and more artisans entered the field as markets grew bigger.
Once the domain of individual craftsmen, jewelry-making is now a huge money-spinner for Thailand! However, through the initiatives of NGO’s, more and more buyers are finding pieces made through cottage-industries that employ fair trade practices.