A First-Hand Look at the Creation of Hill Tribes Plated Metal Beads and Components

by Lisa Coen, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and BeadsĀ®

In a mountainous area of Thailand, indigenous peoples from six different tribes--known collectively as the Hill Tribes--inhabit the remote regions. Skilled in metal crafting, the Hill Tribes are respected for their expert craftsmanship in silver and other metals.

Since 2002, Fire Mountain Gems and Beads has been a proud distributor of the finely-crafted Thai silver beads and components created by the Hill Tribes jewelry artisans. Chris, Stuart and Num from our Purchasing Group traveled to visit the tribes a few years ago, spending time with the families and experiencing their cultures and ways of life.

In past years, many of the young people in the Hill Tribes were leaving the villages to find work in the cities, and many of the centuries-old traditions were being lost. Supporting the Hill Tribes and offering their handmade silver beads and other metal products to our designer-artists allows the young people to move back to the villages and continue their traditional way of life.

As silver has become so much more expensive, we have been working with the Hill Tribes artisans to develop plated-brass and copper beads. Expertly handcrafted, the plated-metal beads maintain the same superior handcrafted quality jewelry designers have come to expect from the Hill Tribes. The artisans take great pride in creating these beads, giving each piece their distinctive style in various smooth, textured, carved and hammered finishes.

Here are some design ideas incorporating Hill Tribe jewelry components:

A First-Hand Look at the Creation of Hill Tribes Plated-Metal Beads and Components A First-Hand Look at the Creation of Hill Tribes Plated-Metal Beads and Components

A First-Hand Look at the Creation of Hill Tribes Plated-Metal Beads and Components

Here's an up-close view of Hill Tribes artisans creating copper and brass beads and components:

Hill Tribes artisans prepare our brass and copper beads.

How a Brass Drop is Created

A brass drop begins as a piece of wire.
The wire is curled with a wire jig or pliers and then cleaned.
The artisan aligns curled components together in preparation for soldering.
Soldering away! Hill Tribes artisans prepare our brass drops.
Component pieces are soldered together with flux to form a single component.
An artisan soldering with flux. In the background, another artisan is curling pieces of wire in preparation for soldering, while future artisans play and look on.

After plating with copper, the drop will look like this:
How a Copper Bead is Created

The artisan begins with a large piece of copper, first straightening it, then cutting out pieces.
A piece is carved to create a bead.
The edges of the piece are cut.
The piece is filed.
The artisan pounds the copper component over a piece of wire to create a crease in the bead.

This will be the end result after hammering and plating with silver:
How a Puffed Bead is Created

The artisan creates the curved sides of a bead in the dapping block.
Two curved rounds are soldered together to form a hollow bead.
The piece is ground to smooth the soldered edges.
The artisan creates a bead hole with a hammer and nail.

The result is a puffed round bead that will look like this after plating:

After the Hill Tribes artisans finish the raw work involved in designing and creating the beads and components, the items are taken to the city of Chiang Mai in Thailand to be plated. After plating, they are ready to be shipped.

Our relationship with the Hill Tribes brings prosperity to everyone involved. Your purchase of their beautiful handcrafted beads and components supports the artisans and their families. The jewelry-making traditions within the Hill Tribes villages will continue to be handed down to the younger generations, keeping the centuries-old techniques alive.

Special thanks to our vendor who traveled to the Hill Tribes village to take these photos, and to Num Dechasiri and Dev Nagi of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads for their valuable input.

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Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article "A First-Hand Look at the Creation of Hill Tribes Plated-Metal Beads and Components," as featured in an email newsletter. Please keep in mind that the comments expressed below are those of our customers and do not reflect the views of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads.

"Thank you for explaining the process and your involvement in supporting Hill Tribes artists. They produce beautiful pieces that enhance our jewellery creation.

As someone who has done some work with metals, I was concerned, however, that in a couple of the stages the workers were not using protective equipment, particularly safety glasses. This would be very cheap insurance when someone is grinding metal, for example, where an accident could mean someone losing their sight or having it compromised. Is this something you could provide for the workers, to show your concern for their safety? Cheers"
- Janet

"Thank you for bringing us this interesting article. It's heart warming to know that we can help save a cultural art and craftsmanship."
- Betty

"Great. Very interesting. Fire Mountain is to be congratulated with their work with the Hill people."
- Susan

"Loved the pictures of the Hill Tribes artisans at work, especially what the finished beads look like."
- Vicky

"I do not have a question, but just wanted to thank you for the special feature which was presented on the Hill Tribe People. For quite some time I have used and admired the work of the Hill Tribe but knew nothing of their background. This clip certainly gave a better understanding and appreciation for the jewelry pieces themselves when we see how they are made and the skills that are required.

I am also pleased that these generations of people can be employed in their native way so that this culture remains intact and not lost. I am happy to be a customer of Fire Mountain that allows me in a small way to be a part of this process and commend you for your part in this endeavor. Sincerely,"
- Peggy

"Dear one's
I really liked the article on the Hill Tribes. Thank you for helping a tribe maintin their culture. I am Native American. It's an uphill battle to keep our traditions."
- Eleanor

"I find the stories about the Hill Tribes interesting but have a few questions. How and where is the silver mined that they use? Are they paid a decent wage? Do they do this fine work by choice or by the demand of leaders? Do children also do this work and if so, how old are they?

I watched a documentary on how most of the gold in the world is mined and will never buy new gold pieces unless I can have a guarantee that it is not being mined by slaves and kids. That is why I want to know - where does the silver the Hill tribes use come from and how is it mined and by whom?"
- Charlie and Phyllis

"I did like this resource. I'd like to see somewhat larger photos of the people working on these beads so I can tell what they are doing. That could be a help in my understanding the process they go through to create their beads/findings.

In addition, I'd like to know more about the plating process on the Hill Tribe beads and other plated beads sold by Fire Mountain. I gather some methods of plating are better than others. I'd like to know more about that so I can be a more informed shopper. Also, regarding vermeil, what is the process of plating used on vermeil and how does it compare with plated beads? I realize vermeil is a higher karat gold content and is plated on silver. I also realize other plated beads may be on other types of metals, but what is the wearability of plated vs. vermeil and does the metal beneath it really matter? If so, how does it matter?

Thank you for presenting more information about the Hill Tribe bead/finding creative process. It was more helpful."
- Carol

"Your articles are really well done and very interesting. Thanks so much for the information on the Hill Tribes."
- Nancy

"What a great story about the Hill Tribes! I love the silver and learning about the artisans that create these amazing pieces makes me appreciate the pieces even more. Thank you for sharing this remarkable experience. You should consider offering an educational tour for your customers. Seeing artisans work is very inspirational."
- Rebeca