Antique Tribal Silver Jewellery from the Hill Tribes of Southeast Asia

August 16th, 2017

Jewellery and ornamentation is an integral part of Southeast Asian hill tribe cultures, and in the past the value of almost everything was measured in terms of silver. History taught the hill tribe groups that paper money could become worthless overnight and so silver became their trusted currency. In Peoples of the Golden Triangle by Paul and Elaine Lewis, it is stated that, ‘They feel happy and secure when they are loaded down with silver, beads and other valuables’.

Hill Tribe Women of Southeast Asian Wearing Silver Jewellery

In the past, French silver coins were melted down and fashioned into a wonderful variety of forms by highly skilled silversmiths, whom today have all but vanished. Modern silver hill tribe jewellery is markedly inferior in terms of both materials and execution. The vast majority of genuine antique silver hill tribe jewellery has been sold off for cash by villagers long ago, and the pieces that we offer in our gallery represent the remaining trickle of antique silver that becomes available sporadically, a few pieces at a time.

Specific styles of silver jewellery were favoured by the distinct hill tribe groups including the Hmong (White Hmong & Blue Hmong) , Lisu, Mien (Yao), Akha, Wa/Lawa, Karen, Shan, and Lahu. The most prolific and skilled producers of silver jewellery and ornamentation appear to have been the Hmong and the Mien.

Antique Dragon Head Silver Bracelets Worn by the Hmong and Mien (Yao)
Antique Silver Hill Tribe Bracelets

Silver was of special significance to the Hmong and symbolized wealth and the essence of a good life.  At the time of the Hmong New Year, all the family silver jewellery is worn and displayed. Three styles of earrings were favoured by the Hmong; one shaped like an arrow, with the shaft bent to form a circle. Another is an elongated S shape with a pointed plug which passes through the earlobe. The third and more recent is a design of a small silver hook with several small dangles hanging from it. Both men and women wear heavy, engraved silver bracelets as well as flat engraved bracelets. Solid or hollow neck rings are also worn alone or in sets of up to six. Heavy silver chains from which hang lock shaped pendants are also very important to the Hmong and are said to help lock the soul in the body. A variety of silver hair ornaments were also worn traditionally by women, some in the shape of opium poppies (the Hmong were very successful growers of opium poppies).  During the Hmong New year, which falls at the end of the harvest season between November and December, the quantity of silver displayed in previous times was impressive.

Antique Silver Soul Lock Pendants from the Hmong

In Mien (Yao) villages, women and children would wear silver neck rings, sometimes multi-tiered, on festive occasions. From hooked rings, women would suspend silver chains with bells, balls, and dangles attached. Mien women, like the Hmong, wear arrow-shaped earrings with the shafts forming a circle, along with a variety of rings. Heavy silver bracelets were also popular and worn on the left wrist. Also popular amongst Mien women were silver butterflies, birds, flowers, and geometric designs. Soul lock pendants as worn by the Hmong were also worn by the Mien.

The Hmong and Mien (Yao) Wearing Silver Jewellery

The majority of the antique silver jewellery that we offer comes from the Hmong groups of Laos and occasionally the Mien (Yao). There are certain designs that were shared by both groups such as the circular arrow earrings and various styles of bracelets. Featured here are a few examples of antique hill tribe silver jewellery acquired on a recent trip to Laos. Click on any of the photographs featured to be taken to our antique tribal jewellery category.

Antique Silver Hairpins from the Hmong of Laos
Antique Silver Hairpins from the Hmong of Laos
Antique Silver Box from the Hmong

Antique Tribal Silver Jewellery from the Hmong

September 21st, 2016

Having recently returned from a trip to Laos, we wanted to showcase the beautiful tribal jewellery created by the talented Hmong silversmiths of the past. Antique Hmong silver jewellery was made using high content silver and is superior to the work being done today, including the fake Hmong jewellery found in markets and online.

Traditional Hmong Designs on Silver Antique Bracelets
Traditional Hmong Designs on Antique Silver Bracelets

The Hmong, (also known as Meo or Miao) are a strong willed hill tribe people thought to have originated in Southern China some 3,000 years ago. Today the Hmong are found throughout Southeast Asia, the result of significant migration provoked by persecution from the Chinese during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Hmong were the first hill tribe group to successfully cultivate opium and are known to be shrewd entrepreneurs. Despite the pressures to conform to life in the 21st century, ancient Hmong culture is proving robust to dissolution with much of their customs, traditions and beliefs remaining intact. While the opium poppy fields have largely been replaced with food crops and children are now often educated in local schools, most born into this distinct culture remain proudly Hmong.

Hmong Girls in Traditional Costume
Hmong Girls in Traditional Costume

The Hmong’s love of silver and silversmith skills are widely known and admired. In the past, households acquired as much silver as possible, and during New Year all the families’ silver came out on display.  As the New Year approached, Hmong silversmiths would melt silver bars and old neckbands to repair jewellery and create new ornaments for the coming celebrations.

Hmong Silversmith at Work 20th Century
Hmong Silversmith at Work 20th Century

In the early part of last century, silver was often obtained through melting French silver coins. Silver jewellery was to the Hmong more than a mere decorative show of wealth, but also a representation of their spiritual beliefs. Silver neck rings with lock shaped pendants were given to children in the ‘naming ceremony’ to keep the restless soul from prematurely leaving the body.

Other common forms of jewellery worn by the Hmong include solid or hollow silver torques, flat or hollow bracelets with engraved designs, earrings in a variety of styles, and cone shaped rings often worn on every finger, as well as hairpins; some in the shape of the opium poppy. A single pair of silver earrings could take a master up to five days to complete and one mistake could ruin days of work.  We’ve included a few images of antique Hmong jewellery acquired on our most recent trip to Laos and now available in the gallery. The last image is of one of the loveliest examples of Hmong silver work we’ve seen to date – a 19th century medicine box from Luang Prabang, where the Hmong have lived for centuries.

Antique Hmong Silver Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Bracelets
Antique Tribal Jewellery
Antique Hmong Silver Earrings
Antique Hmong Tribal Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Hairpins
Antique Hmong Silver Neck Rings with Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Hmong Silver Neck Rings with Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Silver Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Torques
Antique Hmong Silver Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Hmong Silver Soul Lock Pendants
Antique Silver Medicine Box
19th Century Hmong Silver Medicine Box

View Tribal Jewellery Collection

Copyright sabai designs gallery 2016

Tribal Silver Jewelry and other Artifacts Acquired on a Recent Trip to Laos

July 25th, 2011

Last week we returned from a visit to Laos where we enjoyed catching up with old friends and acquaintances in the antiques business. We had the good fortune of finding several lovely antique silver bracelets, pendants, torques and earrings along with a stunning temple bell, a village gong, and a few opium weights in the style of Lanna Thai and northern Laos as well some silk textiles.

The Lao or Laotians are a welcoming and slow paced people and we always enjoy our time spent in their undeveloped but charming country.  We noticed several changes in the capital, Vientiane; the development of the river bank and the restoration of the centuries old temple, Wat Si Saket., which is still in progress. There are also plans to relocate the shops in the old morning market or talart chow to an adjacent building which will be more in the style of Bangkok shopping malls. Locals and visitors alike are not convinced that these changes are necessarily for the best.

There was as expected both an appreciable decline in the number of authentic antiques available as well as a hike in the prices asked by local dealers. For years hill tribe peoples including the Hmong, Akha, Lisu, Lawa, Lahu and Shan have brought their old silver jewelry to the capital to sell, but the dealers tell us these visits have gone from a few visits a day 20 years ago, to once a month or so nowadays. The Shan and Hmong are well known for their silversmith skills and interesting tribal designs. The Hmong silversmiths favoured melted down French coins to work with, preferring the lustre and malleability of the silver. You can read more about the Hmong and their crafts in our article about our Hmong Collection.

Antique Hmong Silver
Antique Silver Hill Tribe Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver
Antique Hill Tribe Silver Bangles
Antique Hmong Silver
Antique Silver Necklaces & Torque

As well as presenting here a small collection of the items that we acquired we have also included a few photos of the beautiful bronze Buddha images and temple embellishments from Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaew, the former royal temple built in 1565 under the command of King Setthathirat.

Beautiful Bronze Buddha Statues Haw Pha Kaew
Old Buddha Statues Wat Si Saket
Bronze Buddha Statues Haw Pha Kaew
Naga Sculptures and Temple Doors Wat Si Saket