“Dok Pi-khune” design

A piece of art from the heart of Laos
by Shui Meng Ng

The mystery of the dok pi-khune motif

The dok pi-khune flower

The dok pi-khune flower

I have always been fascinated by the intricacy of the dok pi-khune design seen in traditional Lao silver bracelets and necklaces. I wanted to know the origin of this design, which I was told was originally made for the use the queens and princesses of the royal household of Luang Prabang. Yet, the term dok pi-khune is not Lao, it is a Thai name of a flower commonly found in Thailand. (dok in Thai and Lao means “flower”, so dok pi-khune means pi-khune flower). Thus, I wondered is the dok pi-khune design is Lao or Thai?

When I met a well-known silver master in Vientiane, I resolved the mystery of the dok pi-khune motif. As testified by many Lao, the motif originates in Laos, as it is seen in many old photographs and exhibition of jewelry used by royals and courtesans in Luang Prabang. As the wearing of intricately designed silver jewelry was probably only affordable to the high-born, it would not be far-fetched to assume that the first pieces of silver jewelry with the dok pi-khune design were made by Lao silver artisans for the women of the royal household, and later also made for the women of the aristocracy.

“Dok Pi-Khune” design patterned according to the ki-khep (Lao for centipede

“Dok Pi-Khune” design patterned according to the ki-khep (Lao for centipede

According to my silversmith friend, the design was not called dok pi-khune, but traditionally the Lao referred to this kind of design as the ki-khep design. Ki-khep in Lao means centipede, and when a customer in Laos asks for something made in the ki-khep design, the silversmith will make the silver motif which is today called dok pi-khune.

So, when did the term dok pi-khune replace ki-khep? According to my friend,  in the mid-1990s when more and more Thai tourists (mostly from Bangkok) started to come to Laos and buy silver jewelry, they kept referring to the ki-khep design as dok pi-khune. This seems to make a lot of sense, since the urban Thai probably considered the name “centipede” unbefitting for such a beautiful and delicate motif. They therefore regularly use the more poetic and refined name of dok pi-khune to refer to the ki-khep design, and soon the people selling silver jewelry also followed suit. However, although the Lao now use the name dok pi-khune to refer to the motif, the “small attachment” at the edge of the dok pi-khune is still called by the Lao ki-khep feet.

Crafting dok pi-khune – a labor of love

When I saw for myself the process of making of each dok pi-khune motif, I was truly amazed at how testing and tedious nature of the task. It can be said that each dok pi-khune silver motif is a labor of love.  The process involves:

1. Smelting the silver

Smelting the raw silver beads.  Molten silver poured in mould to form silver bars  

Smelting the raw silver beads.  Molten silver poured in mould to form silver bars

 

The making of silverware starts with smelting the raw silver, normally in ingot or bead form. (Nowadays, raw silver used in silver crafting is usually in the form of pea-sized beads). The smelting process separates the impurities from the silver and the pure silver is poured into moulds to form bars.

2. Rolling, stretching and pulling the silver into strands

Then the silver is rolled and stretched and pulled into silver strands of different thickness, with the finest silver strand no thicker that a human hair. In the past all this is made by hand, but nowadays, the rolling and stretching of the silver into strands can be made by passing the silver many times through a set of rollers powered either by a foot pedals or electricity. Then the silver is wound into coils and ready to be shaped into the dok pi-khune motif.

Rolling and stretching silver into strands of different thickness. Silver is pulled through this plate with holes of different diameter

Rolling and stretching silver into strands of different thickness. Silver is pulled through this plate with holes of different diameter

3. Winding the silver strand to form “springs”

In the case of making the dok pi-khune motif, the fine silver strand is wound round a metal or copper rod to form a coil. This has to be done twice to form “springs”. The smaller the desired motif, the finer will be the silver strand; and the finer the silver strand, the smaller will be the diameter of the rod. In the case of the smallest dok pi-khune, the silver strand is as fine as human hair and the rod is the size of a pin.

Winding silver strand to form “springs”

Winding silver strand to form “springs”

4. Cutting the springs to form “petals”

The silver “springs” are then cut and bent into circular shapes to form “petals” of the “pi-khune” flower.

Different sizes of “dok pi-khune” petals

Different sizes of “dok pi-khune” petals

5. Making the “heart” of the dok pi-khune

The next step is to make tiny silver beads from cutting the silver strands into tiny pieces and passing a flame to mould each piece by hand into a tiny silver bead to form the “heart” of the pi-khune flower.

Making tiny silver beads to form “heart” of dok pi-khune

Making tiny silver beads to form “heart” of dok pi-khune

6. Affixing the “hearts” to the “petals”

Then the “petals” are placed on a smooth sticky surface (similar to the sticky surface of a fly-paper), and one by one the tiny silver beads are placed in the middle of each “petal” to form its “heart”. Once this is done, a small flame is passed through the plate of “flowers” to affix the hearts to the petals.

Placing “hearts" into the dok pi-khune petals

Placing “hearts" into the dok pi-khune petals

7. Affixing the dok pi-khune to form bracelets, necklaces, or earrings

Now that the individual dok pi-khune motifs are made, they can be removed to be affixed and mixed with other motif (diamond, rounds, etc.) onto the silver backing of different widths and lengths to form the single-rowed or multi-rowed bracelets, necklaces and earrings.

Dok pi-khune made into belts and bracelets

Dok pi-khune made into belts and bracelets

Bracelet with ki-khep feet affixed to edge of dok-pi-khun

Bracelet with ki-khep feet affixed to edge of dok-pi-khun

8. Making ki-khep feet edging

Often dok pi-khune bracelets and necklaces have ki-khep feet edging. Each ki-khep feet is actually made up of three tiny silver beads fused together. This is another time-consuming task as each tiny bead has to be made by hand and then fused together using a tiny flame. Once the “feet” are made, they have to be fused at correct intervals at the edge of each bracelet or necklace.

9. Whitening and darkening treatment

Then depending on the taste of customers, the completed dok pi-khune pieces have to receive the final “whitening” or “darkening” treatment by using a special kind of chemical to achieve the desired effect.

Silver jewelry whitened or darkened according to customers’ taste

Silver jewelry whitened or darkened according to customers’ taste

10. Polishing and shining and quality checking

To remove any irregularities, the dok pi-khune pieces are polished. Finally all the pieces are checked for quality prior to sending to the buyers.  It takes a highly skilled and dedicated silversmith to make this style of jewelry. By understanding how each piece of dok pi-khune jewelry is made, we can appreciate it as truly a work of art and a labor of love from the heart of Laos.