Silver nevertheless makes up the bulk of traditional jewellery, but it takes a variety of forms, according to sex and the tribal group. Surface decoration is not as sophisticated as the Thai work, but it has vigor and simplicity. Engraving and chasing (both work from the front of the silver, the latter involving punching down the background to leave areas of design standing in relief) are the most common techniques, with geometrics and floral designs standing predominating.
Less frequent use was made of repoussée, appliqué, filigree, granulation and enamelling. The two pendants overleaf, both on chains, are of the type worn mainly by the Lisu, Lahu, and Akha women, around the neck or, more usually, from a shoulder loop or from the back of a neck ring. Both end in a set of personal grooming instruments hanging as pendants, adding a practical feature to the silver’s functions as investment and display. They include tweezers, needles, knives and brushes, a hilltribe version of the Swiss.
Army knife. The New Year’s celebrations are still the occasion for bringing out the best jewellery-the fine old heirlooms-and for dressing up. Lisu girls from a village near Tak don layer upon layer of necklaces, rings and studs.
Probably the most characteristic items of hilltribe silver are the neck rings and bracelets, shown above. For these prominent pieces, the silversmiths who made them insisted on the highest possible quality of silver, because they should never tarnish. They are worn by men and women, and by most of the tribal groups. The Karen are the exception, eschewing heavy silver in favour of bead necklaces in great variety; their most common silver item is a necklace made of small-denomination old Thai ‘bullet’ coins.