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Thai Karen Hill Tribe Silver Jewellery in the Northern Thailand

Jewellery, and in particular, silver jewellery, plays more than a decorative role in hilltribe society. It demonstrates the wealth of a family, defines its status, and enhances the attractiveness of girls of marriageable age. In general, across all the tribal groups, wealth is worn rather than hoarded. Silver is the metal of choice: it is more affordable than gold for people who live in rather marginalized economic circumstances and easy enough to work into heavy, bright, jangling ornaments. Part of the reason for the hilltribe faith in silver lies in their history or uncertainty; over centuries, these people have had to migrate to escape persecution of one kind or another.

Paper money thus often became worthless. Silversmithing has been in serious decline for a few decades, and very few villages now have a resident smith. The job is usually combined with that of the blacksmith, who does of course have a regular flow of work, making machete-like field knives, hoes, sickles, spades and axes, and occasionally repairing long shotguns used for hunting. Modern silver work tends to be restricted to making buttons, studs, and similar uncomplicated items, and the pieces shown here are essentially a lost craft. The raw material was purchased either in the form of silver sheet from Chinese or Shan traders, or as coinage. The silver content of these varies from about 60 percent for some Chinese coins to 92.5 percent for some rupees from British India. Brass and copper are also sometimes used and a recent trend has been to wear aluminum as a substitute.

This has been a response not only to the higher price of silver, but also to what seems to be an increasing danger of robbery-the equivalent of a former Western practice of having paste jewellery made in imitation of the owner’s real pieces considered too valuable to wear on most occasions. The decline in silversmithing was triggered in the 1970s, ironically by the sharp rise in the world price of silver. It became so expensive that robbers began to stalk hilltribe women of the silver ornaments attached them outside their village. The Akha women were particular targets because of the silver ornaments attached to their headdresses. The women traditionally never removed the headdress, but wore it everywhere. At that time, robbery was a daily occurrence in some areas, encouraging the families either to sell their silver or hide it at home, fashioning substitutes from aluminum .