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“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
I have always been fascinated by the intricacy of the “Dok pi-khune” design in the silver bracelets and necklaces. I wanted to know the origin of this design which I have been told was originally made for the use the queens and princesses of the royal household of Luang Prabang.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). So, I have always wondered whether the “dok pi-khune” design is originally Lao or Thai?
It was only until I met a well-known silver master in Vientiane that I have 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 high status women 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. According to my silversmith, 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” come into use? My informant told me that that 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.
Making “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 the task was. It can be said that each “dok pi-khune” silver motif is a labor of love.
The process involves:
1. Smelting the silver
The making of silverware starts with smelting the raw silver, normally in ingot form, 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.
Smelting the raw silver beads. Molten silver poured in mould to form silver 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 of silver strands and ready for use for making 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.
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 pikhune”, the silver strand is as fine as human hair and the rod is the size of the “pin”.
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.
Cutting the “springs” to form “petals”
Different sizes of “dok pik-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”
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 place 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
7. Affixing the “dok pi-khune” to form bracelets, necklaces, or ear rings
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 ear-rings.
“Dok pi-khune” made into belts and bracelets
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.
Bracelet with “ki-khep” feet affixed to edge of “dok-pi-khune”
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
10. Polishing and shining and quality checking
To remove any irregularities, the “dok pi-khune” pieces are then polished and shined to give it the required sheen. Finally all the pieces are checked for quality prior to sending to the buyers.
It is only when we understand and see how each piece of “dok pi-khune” jewelry is made, that we can appreciate it as truly a work of art and a labor of love from the heart of Laos. No wonder, the “dok pi-khune” motif is made only by the most skilled silversmiths of Laos.
A social enterpriseSaoban is a member of PADETC, a Lao NGO that integrates socially sustainable programs in education, agriculture, micro-finance, handcrafts and community leadership.
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