Formerly introduced in Thailand by the Indian traders, the original techniques of silver ware and jewelry making have slowly evolved through the influences of various periods of art. Particularly in Northern Thailand – a cultural melting pot for over 1,000 years – silver work originated as a result of Burmese and Shan methods and styles, and developed rapidly afterwards to become a combination of techniques and designs.
Silver Cuff Bracelet
The ethnic minority peoples (Tibeto-Burmese, Hmong and Yao, the Shan and Tai minorities of Vietnam and Laos) have had much influence on Thai silver works. Types of adornment and jewelry, crafted by one minority people have been adopted by other minorities; the present adornment and jewelry range of some minorities also includes both ancient and more recent types.
Chinese silversmiths and craftsmen, originally from Fukien and Kwangtung provinces, have also had much influence on Thai silver work. Over the course of time, many of them intermarried with the local population, and their work has blended to such an extent that it has virtually become indistinguishable from that of indigenous Thai silversmiths.
In addition, various stone and glass beads and metal ornaments from India and China have been traded into Thailand and Southeast Asia for centuries, which have also contributed to the variety and complexity of Thailand’s jewelry.
Although the number of Thai silver craftsmen and silversmiths possessing genuine expertise has declined and numerous of their techniques died out since the beginning of this century, the crafts have nevertheless survived into modern time, and present production still features some techniques and methods dating back hundreds of years.
Today the art of silverware and jewelry making is concentrated in three locations:
1) In the capital in Bangkok: Many silversmiths in Bangkok are of Chinese origins. Chinese silversmiths started to arrive in the early Bangkok period and more came in the reign of King Rama V. In the early period, they worked in families, gradually blending into Thai society over the years.
The production of silver in the past had to rely on the expertise of skilled craftsmen to create beautiful designs. Chinese craftsman were accepted both for their creative use of design and for the unique production techniques they used, which in turn influenced all silversmiths in Thailand.
2) In the south in Nakhon Sri Thammarat: Historically, it is not exactly certain when the craftsmen of Nakhon Sri Thammarat became worthy of note, though their work began to achieve true recognition in the Ayutthaya artistic period. They most probably have received heavy influence from Malay silversmiths.
The province is the most important centre for high quality nielloware. (The art of niello consists in engraving a design on a silver or gold object, filling the design with niello enamel and highly polishing the surface.) These master craftsmen produce stunning works of art using time-consuming and labor-intensive techniques for appreciative collectors.
3) In the north in Chiang Mai: Geographically well- located within easy distance from Burma, Central Thailand, Laos, and China, the region stood at the centre of a continual interchange of ideas and talented artisans as the kingdom historically alternated between Thai and Burmese domination.
Burmese, Shan, Northern Thai, Central Thai, Lao, ethnic minority peoples, such as the hill-tribes, influences can be seen in Chiang Mai silver works. Under these diverse influences, Chiang Mai silver craftsmen have achieved considerable fame and still today continue producing works of incomparable beauty. The local expertise is repoussé work in floral and animal designs and the works made with this technique include a wide range of decorative and utilitarian objects as well as jewelry.
Silver Alms Bowl
There are many types of silver objects being produced in Thailand with various alloys and even pure silver, although sterling silver remains a quality standard for jewelry. The making processes are quite complex, and the separation and control of each step is of prime importance. From the thorough selection of the raw materials to the making of wares and jewelry requires knowledge, experience, patience, time as well as manual skills that demand a great amount of delicacy.
Indeed, silver works, jewelry and stone setting are fine arts and the Thai are among the world’s best silver craftsmen and silversmiths. With a whole battery of moulds, tools, hammers and chisels, they stamp, pressure, forge, cast, engrave, apply enamel and niello, or inlay precious or semi-precious stones to slowly craft exquisite and quality silver works of art.