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Hill Tribe Beads

forming beads In a small village high in the mountains of northern Thailand, the artisans of the Karen Hill Tribe are making fine silver beads. These skills have been developed over almost 700 years, making jewelry that has been used to convey status and position in the Tribe and play an important role in traditional rituals. The Tribe live and work in extended families who often specialize in a particular bead style, such as flowers or sea life. Weaving is another craft they have mastered, weaving silk to create colorful sarongs, shawls, throws and table covers.

The fine silver used by the Karen Hill Tribe to make their beads comes from various mines and is traditionally 99.9% silver. The silver arrives shaped like small chips; some of these chips are melted down to make spacer beads and other round shapes. A hammer and a “pin” are used to make a hole from each side of the beads, meeting in the middle. Once the solid bead is formed, it can be stamped by hand, if so desired. Many of the tools used by the Hill Tribe artisans are custom made to suit the task. Often they used old car parts, showing an ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Sheets of fine silver are used to create hollow beads. The sheet is cut into strips with silver snips or a jeweler’s saw. The strip is cut to the desired bead size, sometimes stamped for decoration, then formed into a tube and soldered together. The final shape is formed with a small hammer over a nail. Fine silver wire is used to make filigree beads and bead caps.

The popularity of Hill Tribe silver beads has grown rapidly over the last few years. The demand for these beautiful beads has increased the temptation to produce imitations. To ensure the high quality of the beads usedĀ  in my designs, I purchase my Hill Tribe beads from a reliable vendor, Niki Passenier. Niki, a native of Belgium, is a designer who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She works with the artisans to create original beads for her designs and to sell at trade shows. She provides the fine silver to the Hill Tribe for the beads she orders and pays them directly for their work. It is a fair and living wage, set by the artisans themselves, making the beads truly fair trade. This enables them to improve living conditions in the village, provide modernĀ  health care for themselves and their families, and offer educational opportunities to their children.

The importance of fair trade materials is essential to the integrity of designs I create for HERDESIGN. Beautiful pieces are made more enjoyable when one knows that the work of the artisans is well compensated and can be appreciated by a wide audience.