Sunday, February 20, 2011

How Karen Hill Tribe Silver Beads are Made

By on Sunday, February 20, 2011 7 Comments

There are six main hill tribes in northern Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) who are known for their lovely silver jewelry. One of the largest are the Karen. Half of Thailand's hill tribe people are the Karen. Their tribal lore tells of their ancestors crossing "a river of running sand". Many of them think this refers to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. If so, their ancestors left there many centuries ago.

Karen Silver Necklace picture by Silver Canyons on Artfire

Image by Chrissy Olson
Today they are mostly farmers eking out a living in a remote and heavily forested part of the country. They are also the crafts people behind Hill tribe silver. It's not just the workmanship which is prized but the fact that the Karen use a much purer form of silver (97 - 99%) than sterling silver(92.5%). The solder they use to fuse pieces together is what prevents their metal work from being close to 100% silver . It is easier to work with fine silver as it is softer.

A Big-Ear Karen Tribe VendorImage by Jill Mitchell Silver jewelry is part of their culture. Young hill tribe women save their money to buy silver beads to add to their dowries.

The silver beads are all painstakingly hand crafted. Workshops in many of these villages are often wooden houses which could be on stilts. They work in an assembly line, each worker processing one stage.

As you can see from this video, there are no furnaces - the silver is melted down by torch. The molten metal is poured into a mold to form rods. These are then rolled into long strips using roller presses before moving on to be shaped and textured. It's mind boggling to see that every single tiny bead is created by hand. It`s yet another reason why Karen Hill Tribe silver is more expensive.

But it's worth it not just because the silver pieces are so beautiful. It helps keep their traditional crafts alive and enable the Karen to earn a living.

The women towards the end of the video have homemade rice powder face masks on - a traditional beauty treatment for blemishes, wrinkle banishment and to even out skin pigmentation.

While the above video shows the silver making steps clearly, I suspect the silver making station there is geared for tourists. Check out this video which shows a trip to a real Hill Tribe Silver Village. Such teamwork - the men using their foot pump operated torches!

More South East Asian Posts :
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
Jewelry Making Tips - Jewelry Business Tips 



  1. nice...reminds me of the silver pieces the banjara tribes wear in India

  2. Silver work was brought to South East Asia by the Indians so maybe there is a small link.

  3. Thanks for the great videos and article.
    It's nice to see artisans creating great pieces without expensive equipment.
    You're article inspired me to go make a pendant.
    Thank you.

  4. Wow, fascinating stuff Pearl! And the amount of silver in that shop was astounding.

  5. The beauty and craftsmanship of Hill Tribes fine silver beads, flower pendants, chains and findings have always impressed me. Now, after seeing how incredibly time intensive these pieces are to fabricate, I find myself not impressed but astonished by the beauty they achieve using such rudimentary tools.
    Oh how I wish I could be a buyer for one of the giant Bead and Jewelry Supply sellers...of course I'd probably blow a whole year's worth of my salary on a suitcase full of precious Hill Tribes bracelets and beads just for myself. lol

  6. What a great service you offer to all..I am totally fascinated learning the 'back story' to these wonderful silver beads.
    I use them in designing necklaces...and this personal reported information , is something that will help me in describing the sources of the items I use.

  7. There is so much to appreciate in the jewelry world - not just the contribution by artisans world wide but the history behind our craft.