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