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Karen Silver Jewellery: necklaces, pendants, earrings and rings. Highly individualistic, superbly crafted, finely designed – each piece a conversation stopper! Hand-crafted by the Karen hill tribe, this silver jewellery combines aspects of their native culture and natural environment with modern designs, styled for the woman of today.  And you can practically see evidence of each piece having been formed by the hands of a Karen craftsman. These pieces are not usually hallmarked in any way, but there is absolutely no doubt as to their origins or authenticity. Because, only the Karen can make silver jewellery this beautiful!

The Karen People

The Karen hill tribes are from amongst Thai and Burmese hill tribes, originally from Tibet, and whose ancestry can be traced back to the 12th century AD. The largest group from around 20 hill tribes, the Karen population presently numbers over seven million spread across the Union of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand.

In Thailand, about 400,000 Karen live at between 800m and 1800m up, in the mountainous and densely forested areas on Mae Hong Son, due west of Chiang Mai, remote and quite isolated from civilisation.

Rice paddies and mountains in Mae Hong Son Province

Rice paddies and mountains in Mae Hong Son Province
Takeaway at en.wikipedia

The Karen hill tribes can trace their antecedents back to what is present day Tibet, and China’s Gobi Desert. According to historians, the Karen began to move south during the 18th century, across the Salveen River from Burma (Myanmar) as far as Northern Thailand. Karen legend states that their ancestors crossed a “river of running sand” – this is thought to be a metaphor for the Gobi Desert.

They live off the land, their houses made of teak or bamboo, constructed on stilts to provide space and shelter for themselves and their livestock. The Karen Tribes are generally farmers of agricultural produce for their own use. They are often referred to as “the farmers of the forest”. The Karen has been known to use elephants to help clear the land for farming, and have since established a reputation as elephant trainers or mahouts. There are several sub groups of Karen tribes, the most common being the “Dam” (Black). The language used by various sub groups is different, but since all originate from Sino-Tibetan, they have no problems communicating.

How the Karen Live and Work

Karen Hill Tribe Village

Karen Hill Tribe Village
© Zoe Children’s Homes

The Karen typically live in villages of around 25 houses, raised on stilts. The villages tend to be in clusters. Individual households consist of parents and their unmarried children. Married daughters and their families may also live in the same house. The highest authority in the village is the priest who runs the village along with the elders.

The Karen have few possessions, little if any furniture. They usually sleep on floor mats, cook on open fires and draw water for all their needs from nearby rivers. Karen men produce musical instruments, animal bells, unique tobacco pipes and numerous other crafted items.

The Karen have rituals by which to live with the “Lord of Land and Water”, as well as with nature’s spirit in the rocks, trees, water and mountains that surround them. They also believe in having personal guardian spirits and in the soul.

Karen women are noted for their skill in weaving, which is done on a back-strap loom. The cloth they weave is predominantly red with white, blue or brown vertical stripes. Stitching is clear and decorative. The men may wear simple forms of this material in a sleeveless tunic (or northern Thai clothing), while the women wear more elaborate styles on their sarongs. Generally, each of the many sections of this ethnic group has its own style of dress. Unmarried girls wear loose white blouses. Married women wear blouses and skirts in bold colours, predominantly blue and red.

Karen Silver

Although most Southeast Asians treasure gold, the Karen people have no use for gold. They have traditionally worn silver jewellery that they make by hand, using methods that have been passed down over the centuries.

The Karen hill tribes’ skill and craftsmanship at making fine and quite unique silver jewellery goes back centuries. They painstakingly roll, shape and engrave their jewellery by hand, using traditional methods with the simplest of tools. The hand-hammered and chased details are wonderful to say the least! The Karen tribe take pride in their silver, since it is part of their age-old culture, and the hand-made process makes these pieces truly special and unique.

The Karen work with silver much purer than sterling silver (92.5%). The solder used to fuse pieces together is what prevents the metal from being close to 100% silver. It is this high purity that makes the metal more malleable, enabling the women to create intricate designs. Karen jewellery has a distinctive weight, matte sheen, and satin finish that only comes from using such rare, fine quality silver.

When you buy Karen silver, you are also helping to sustain a traditional craft and providing the Karen people with a reliable source of income, thus ensuring that the Karen people continue to make a living from a centuries-old craft.

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