The Artisans: Silver

About the Karen Hill Tribe People

Over a century ago, in search of freedom and wealth, nomadic hilltribes migrated south from Burma, Tibet, and Laos, to settle in Thailand. The largest group, the Karen tribe, called “Kariang” or “Yang” in Thai language, migrated from Burma (Myanmar). Their main source of income was agricultural work, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make the ends meet. Out of desperation, young people started turning to prostitution and drug-trade, which soon became a common history of Karen Hill Tribe People. In the 1970’s Thailand’s Royal Family initiated a project to provide alternative sources of income to the hill tribes in this area based on their traditional arts. Due to Karen’s history of working with silver, silver experts were sent to help them become master silversmiths.

The Karen people use high-purity silver (approx. 97%- alloyed with copper) to create outstanding jewellery pieces with floral patterns and tribal symbols that draw on their inspiring beliefs of harmony with nature. The knowledge about working with silver is literally passed from generation to generation. Seniors with years of experience and expertise teach new generations how to handcraft silver jewellery. Often young people surpass their teachers and start their own business (open their own silver workshop in their households). The individual growth is highly supported but at the same time the sense of community prevails. All silver workers from the village meet once a month to establish prices, arrange the purchase of raw materials for the whole community and talk about their grievances.

Talis started working with Karen People who live in Prabhat Huay Thom Village in the district of Lamphun (Northwest mountain range of Thailand) in 2003. We source many of our designs from traditional tribal jewellery, then, working closely with the Karen artisans, modify them, changing proportions, to imbue them with contemporary aesthetics that is accessible to western sensibilities. Once the silver arrives in Canada, it is prepared, cleaned, polished, and assembled using western-standard jewellery wire and findings.


Mr. Didi – Karen Hill Tribe Silver

Mr. DidiMr.Didi is one of three village elders to the Karen village in Prabat Huay Thom Village, Li District, in the province of Lamphun. He has always been a deeply religious man, following the teachings of Buddhist monk Khruba Siwichai. In 1970’s Mr. Didi convinced a small Karen community to migrate from Ban Pang to settle around the main monastery in Li district – Wat Phra Bat Huai Tom Temple. Since opium trade – the most popular source of “income” at that time in Southeast Asia, was against the teachings of Buddhism, the settlement soon started facing starvation. Mr. Didi’s spiritual teacher, Khruba Chao, told him to teach people to do silverwork. Mr. Didi followed the advice – he went to Chiang Mai where he saw that there was a demand for traditional tribal designs. Then he went back home, studied his parents’ tribal jewellery and started his attempts to make it himself, using coin silver. When he was pleased with the results of his work, he went back to Chiang Mai, sold his silverwork and was surprised how much money he made. Back home he started teaching his family and then other households how to make tribal silver jewellery. Then, he would collect everyone’s silver and travel by bicycle for a day and a half to Chaing Mai to sell it. Mr. Didi’s efforts coincided with the Royal Project Foundation initiated and founded by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. The main focus of the foundation was to reduce opium growing by providing village-based communities with quality vocational trainings. Prabat Huay Thom Village got support in agriculture and working with silver and Mr. Didi (together with 4 other silver workers) was brought to the Royal Palace to be trained by six silver masters on how to raise the quality of his silver work.

I met Mr. Didi in 2003, when I first started working with Karen Hill Tribe people. He shared his inspiring story with me and I have been happy to share it with others ever since. Although Mr. Didi is unquestionably the one who helped his kind the most, I like to think Talis has made a difference in Karen Hill Tribe peoples’ lives too. I was the first Canadian who did business with the village on a large scale. I modified some of their designs (rings, earrings, spirit locks) by scaling them down and changing the proportions. They started selling incredibly well so I encouraged Karen Hill tribe people to share them with their other clients. 15 years later they still make and sell internationally my designs.

Over the years of successful partnership, Talis has witnessed the quality of Karen people’s lives dramatically changing for the better. Their wooden huts with thatched roofs and open-air toilets have been replaced by modernized, well-ventilated brick and wooden homes with tiles and indoor-toilets. At present Mr. Didi is happily retired, passing his time on the things he loves most: spending time with his family, meditating and making wooden prayer beads. Since he is the most respected village elder, he still takes part in monthly meetings regarding the on-goings in the community. All of his family members are handcrafting tribal silver jewellery and many nomadic Karen people are moving into the village to learn silverwork.