The Hill Tribes Silver: Persevering Through Hard Times
by Jake Woolley, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

Located in the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma come together, the Hill Tribes artisans have a rich culture of producing incredible handmade jewelry. In today's jewelry market their products have become synonymous with high-quality craftsmanship and are sought after by designers around the world. After several years of producing only fine sterling silver beads and components, the Hill Tribes silversmiths continue to adapt their products to the needs of the jewelry industry in today's economy.

In 2010 the world economy continued to go through hard times and the Hill Tribes experienced their share of hardships. With a continued increase in silver pricing, the Hill Tribes had to make changes to actively stay in business. To do this, they introduced their own line of affordable plated jewelry components on either a brass or copper base. In order to properly design with these new metals, several production changes had to occur.

For many years these artisans were used to handling pure silver, fine-tuning their skills, techniques and equipment to this one medium. Since copper and brass are harder metals to form, the artisans had to develop new methods to maintain their standard of handmade quality. During production it is important to not mix the metals, so the Hill Tribes had to invest in new sets of tools to keep the brass and copper separate. As different metals melt at varied temperatures, soldering copper and brass products took a period of trial and error for the artisans to ensure a quality finished silver-plated piece. Along with devising new production techniques, the artisans also developed a new selection of links, drops, focals and clasps styled for the American market.

Not only were the village workers dealing with an increase in silver prices, which affected the demand for their products, but in the area where they lived there was a significant rise in the cost of living. And in 2012, with a government-mandated minimum wage increase, the Hill Tribes business was financially obligated to pay more for standard labor. With all the production changes and business modifications, at times it would've been easier to quit the jewelry-making business altogether, but with so many families now dependent upon the silversmiths' trade it was necessary for the Hill Tribes to persevere and push through the hard times. Over the years, the profits from these handmade products have resulted in families being able to afford better living conditions and allowing more and more children the opportunity for a formal education.

The Hill Tribes artisans look forward to passing on their silversmith traditions to the upcoming generations and have high hopes that their new cost-effective plated products will continue to be well received by the jewelry-making industry.

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