During last year's gem show in Tucson, I stumbled upon a tiny work space tucked far behind the other booths in one of the hotel shows, and was delighted to find an exotic collection of rustic-looking silver beads and jewelry -- marked as "Hill Tribe Silver". I bought two sweet little 'box beads' like the paper boxes I used to make when I was just a kid (shown on our web site in our 'bead of the week' feature), and set my intention to learn more about this unique silver -- unlike any I had ever seen before.
What I learned was this -- a story more fascinating than I ever expected to find! Fair trade silver beads are handcrafted by Karen Hill tribe artisans, a group of indigenous people in Thailand. The Karen Hill tribe is the largest of the six principle tribes. Historically, the tribe relied primarily on opium cultivation as their main source of income. In the early 1960's, the King & Queen of Thailand decided to help the Karen people develop an alternative to growing opium by teaching them a new skill. Silversmiths were brought in to teach Karen farmers the art of jewelry and bead making using fine silver. These techniques are now passed down to each generation, enabling them to use their craft to sustain the tribe as a whole. When you think of buying Hill Tribe beads or jewelry, you help sustain a traditional art and craft in the remote area, thus providing the Thai Karen people with a reliable, steady and ethical source of income.
All of the handcrafted items are unique - one of a kind. The silver itself has a higher level of purity than sterling silver -- and will not tarnish as readily as sterling. The craftsmanship is superb -- so these elements are frequently the choice of artisans looking to add exotic elements to their designs.
You can find a wide variety of Hill Tribe items on Etsy, at 'karensilverbead'. They also offer 24K gold, fine silver handmade jewelry and custom-made jewelry. I love the items shown here -- and I also love the way they introduce themselves in their shop description: "We're Chaing-mai, Thailand, Southeast Asia - Everyone call 'The Land of Smiles'. Surely this community has something to smile about, having reinvented themselves and made their mark as one of the most respected manufacturer and supplier of handmade silver beads and jewelry in the world.
Have any of you ever worked with Hill Tribe Silver elements? We'd love it if you could share your stories with us -- and photos!
Until Next Time,