Chris and I were in Bangkok for the jewelry show. Fortunately, Num, from our Purchasing Group, accompanied us. Num was born in Thailand and his assistance with translation and Thai business etiquette was indispensable.

On our third day, at the show, we met a representative of the Hill Tribes silversmiths of northern Thailand. Although we had seen the Hill Tribes silver before, this work had a special ''hand worked'' quality to it that appealed to us. It didn't look like some of the ''manufactured'' items that are starting to appear on the market. We were intrigued and wanted to know more about it.

Well, you know how one thing leads to another. The next thing we knew, we had cancelled our trip to China and were on a plane to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

The various Hill Tribes live in the area known as the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) all come together. This area has become famous for the fact that the bulk of the world's opium is grown here.

Chiang Mai is the threshold to this fascinating part of the world and is an exotically beautiful city in its own right.

We met our first Hill Tribes villager that evening at the Night Bazaar. The Night Bazaar is a giant street market that springs up afresh every evening and disappears by the next morning. The villager was a young woman carrying a small child. Both were dressed in vivid fuchsia garments, adorned everywhere with gleaming silver chains, bangles, earrings and beads. This woman didn't have a booth to sell from. She was on foot - barefoot - on the street selling silver trinkets from her outstretched palm. Num tried to talk to her, but he said that she spoke no Thai. Num said that she wasn't begging but had a perfectly legitimate business. We later learned that she was probably a member of the Akha tribe, who are highly respected silversmiths.

The Hill Tribes consist of six distinct tribal groups, each with its own characteristic dress, customs and styles of ornamentation. The Tribes are known in Thailand as the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Hmong (Meo), the Mien (Yeo), the Akha (Kaw), the Lahu (Mussur), and the Lisu (Lisaw). All of the tribes do silversmithing. All of the tribal peoples wear beads. It's just that not all of the people make all of the beads. Some of them actually have their beads made by other tribes. Some of the tribes simply make silver and beads for their own consumption; others are more motivated to make additional products for trade with the outside world. To make this really interesting, individual silversmiths have their own preferences about what they are willing to make and in what quantities. Wow, this sounds like just our sort of challenge!

The tribal villages are scattered over an immense area. Some can only be approached on foot; others are serviced by primitive dirt (mud) roads. We'd like you to join us on what might be a typical visit to a Hill Tribe village:

After three hours, crowded in the cab of a small white pickup truck, we were glad to be approaching the village. Some of the bumps and potholes may have loosened one of the fillings in my teeth. It looks like most of the village is busy thatching the roof of a new house that they are building. The guide tells us that everyone turns out to help in this type of activity. The home's new owner will usually roast a pig and treat his helpers to a feast when the job is done that evening.

Son of the village headman.

The village looks like we've traveled a few centuries back in time. Everything is hand wrought out of materials from the jungle. The people are all wearing bright hand-woven clothing and ornaments. Just as you start to get accustomed to the differences in dress, you see a teenager in a T-shirts and Levis. In one primitive looking house we could see women working at foot-treadle sewing machines.

The people have a difficult existence, growing rice and wresting their other needs from the jungle. In this border area, they are plagued by the activities of smugglers, rogue soldiers and opium warlords.

The people in many of the tribes have learned that collectors in the outside world are tremendously interested in their crafts. They have had success in making basketry, musical instruments, jewelry, tools, utensils, weapons, traps, and clothing for sale to townspeople.

We eventually are allowed to visit the shop where the men are making silver jewelry. Traditionally, silver jewelry has been kept as a store of wealth as well as a means of beautification. Silver jewelry, proudly worn, adds to their financial security, as well as their status. It also helps to attract potential suitors to young women and it adds color and excitement to many rather routine lives.

Watching how the jewelry is made took me back to my first silversmithing class many years ago. Silver ingots are flattened by pounding with hammers. The resulting sheet is cut with jewelers' saws, inch-by-inch, and wire is repeatedly pulled through ancient draw dies. Repoussé work is accomplished by hammering thin silver sheets into black tar molds. The silver they use is soft; they use a .999 pure silver, not the .925 sterling to which we are accustomed. The jewelry they create, with such tremendous effort, has enormous consequence to them; not just as objects of value but also as items of classic beauty and symbolic significance. The pieces go together surprisingly fast, but on inspection we notice that there are no two pieces that are exactly alike; each has its unique, handmade characteristics.

Village silversmith creating adornments using basic silversmithing techniques.

The guide tells us that the people do not totally trust paper money. They prefer silver coins, jewelry, silver ingots, and silver pipes and boxes, because they feel that these items always retain their value.

As darkness falls, we get invited to join a three-family group for an evening meal. The women have prepared a supper of rice, herbs and roots from the jungle, plus some kind of meat, that the guide can't (or won't) explain. After they have cleaned up after the meal, the woman cluster in a circle squatting and talking endlessly. The men sit around their fire and tell stories as they smoke their pipes and drink large quantities of hot tea.

The guide says the stories retell epic feats of great heroes and serve to keep their legends alive. This is also how their culture is passed to the children. The night sky at this high altitude is breathtaking; you can almost reach out and grab a star.

We awaken to the sounds of cows mooing, roosters crowing, pigs and children squealing and the rhythmical sound of the rice-pounder as the women pound the paddy (unhusked rice). Breakfast is a repeat of supper; we still don't know what we're eating. Back in the pickup, we dart around children bringing fresh water from a nearby stream and head back to Chiang Mai. You know, that tooth filling really is coming loose!

We had prepared our initial bead order and presented it to the broker. Later, she came to us in tears. "You have no idea," she said, "of all the good you have done for these people."

Father and Son.

With Num translating, she explained that the elders of the villages feared that they were losing their tribal cultures. There was not enough work in the villages to keep the young people from drifting into the towns, looking for city-work. With this order they could train many of them in their silversmithing traditions. With a steady flow of work, they hope to reverse the city trend and continue their tribal culture.

Chris promised, ''We'll do our very best!" She then gave me a big hug and said, ''You know? This it what we do; this is what it's all about!" I said, "Yep!''

Additional Materials

Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article "Chris and Stuart's Amazing Hill Tribes Adventure" 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.

''I really enjoyed your story about the Hill Tribes and learning about another culture and people that live so remotely. It's especially rewarding to learn that they have not succumbed to the opium trade and dangers around them and have been able to pass down their traditions and continue to create their beautiful jewelry.''
- Robin

''Thank you so much for this article!!! I've loved Hill Tribes beads for years and it was so fun to see the pictures and experience through the eyes of your authors the lifestyle and process of silversmithing in these tribes. Well written, too! Please keep these articles coming!''
- Sharon

''I truly enjoyed the article about Hills Tribe silver. It was well written, in fact I felt like I was almost there with you. Thank you for continuing to help these unique artisans. That is what we expect from Fire Mountain Gems, unique, quality items from caring people.''
- Andrea

''I loved the Hill Tribes Silver article. It was very informative and the pictures were great. It gives those of us who would never have the opportunity to visit a glimpse into the lives of the villagers.

Totally Awesome!!!!''
- Elizabeth

''I loved the article, "Chris and Stuart's Amazing Hill Tribes Silver Adventure". It's great to know more about where these items come from and how they are made. I would love to know even more about these silver beads and findings so I can pass the information along to my customers. It would be great to see close up photos of the tribe's people working on these beautiful items and a video would be even better. I understand that these are people of great tradition and that getting to the individual tribes is challenging but whatever you could provide would be helpful in selling the finished jewelry pieces with Hill Tribes Silver elements. Thank You!''
- Henderson

''Thank you for this fantastic article. Your description of the villagers, the background colors, and sounds made me wish I was with you on this experience/adventure. Also, I wonder what was actually in that mystery meal?! Thanks again for sharing....''
- Mary

''The article about the Hill Tribe silver artisans was amazing. In this world of machine produced EVERYTHING, it is encouraging to know that there are still people who take pride in what can be produced from a bit of silver and the hands God gave them.

Thank you for sharing your experience--can I go next time?? :)''
- Abbi

''I loved the Hills Tribe article. It's information and knowledge like this that keeps our hearts open to the positive. I'm so inspired by this article, which is well written, that I would like to purchase some of this beautiful silver for two reasons: I viewed it on the website and believe it is quite beautiful and I'd like to help support the Hills Tribe in their goals of continuing their tradition.''
- Adrienne

''GREAT story on your trip to Thailand and the Hill Tribes. Very interested to know about the culture behind the silver, beads, etc. Keep it up-we enjoy it.

- Sarah

''Thank you for sharing this fascinating article on Hill Tribes silver creations. Any article you write on any artisan (working in silver, gold, gemstones, etc.) is truly a bonus for subscribing to your frequent newsletters that I always look forward to receiving!!!

Thank you again,''
- "K"

''I loved your article about the trip to Thailand and the Hill Tribe Silver Adventure! A question........where do they obtain their silver?''
- Lyn

''I enjoyed this article so much--the explanation of the craft, seeing the tribe people.

Hill Tribe is my favorite silver and has been since I began to bead 5 years ago.

Thank you for sharing. I wish you had more photos though.''
- Nancy

''Great article from Chris and Stuart. You are so lucky to go there and we are so lucky that you shared your adventure with us--I always wondered about Hill Tribe silver. Thanks again!''
- Linda

''Your description of visiting the Hill Tribes was so interesting. I like to buy materials made by people that I know something about.''
- Nancy

''Having been to Thailand, I especially enjoyed the article on the Hills Tribe villagers. I saw some of the people selling their wares on the streets of Chaing Mai but was ignorant of their heritage. How I regret not making a purchase from them!! However, this trip was made prior to my interest in beading by just a few months and I've learned so much since then!!! I hope to return one day with a much better insight and an even greater appreciation for the riches this region offers.''
- Miki

''Thanks for the Hill Tribes article! I love using Hill Tribes insects and flowers - and people do ask what that means. I tell them what little I know (Thailand, Cambodian refugees, etc.) but this is a very informative article that might even help to sell these pieces!''
- Valerie

''What an interesting story. I hope these people will continue to have enough work to keep their culture alive. So much of our own native culture has disappeared it's good to read a story like this.''
- Betty

''I really enjoyed this article. I love learning about how objects are made. It makes the items I buy so much valuable and appreciated when I know the special stories behind them. I enjoy learning about the causes you support and seeing the photos of those activities in work. I get many chuckles from the Waggin' Tails stories. Keep up the great work!!!''
- Peggy

''An extremely interesting and informative article, and I vicariously enjoyed your entire trip, except for the tooth. These people are really very much like us, aren't they, with the same hopes, love of family and dreams. Thanks for sharing--I'll pass it on to family and friends.''
- Patricia

''Thank you once again for sharing an inspiring story. Thailand is my, and my husband's, favorite place in the world to visit. We like to go every year or every second failing that. The Thai people are uplifting with their generosity of spirit and your story of bringing prosperity to the northern tribes is inspiring! It's great karma to give back and to provide their beautiful original handy-work to us around the globe. I am definitely going to look at the collection. Thank you, it's a pleasure to do business with your company!''
- Penelope