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Silver Handcrafts – An Ancient Tradition
by Shui Meng Ng
Silver apart from being a precious metal used historically as legal tender is also a thing of beauty used by the Lao of all ethnicities to fashion into jewelry for adornment, ritual artifacts for religious and cultural ceremonies, and ornamentation. More importantly, silver also holds a special place in Lao lore. It is believed by Lao people that silver has the power to keep away evil spirits and will protect the owners from ill-fortune and bad health. For this reason, parents and grandparents like to present silver beads, silver coins, anklets, or bracelets to children and make them wear these close to their bodies. For this reason, silver crafting is such a well-developed and ancient art of the Lao people.
Luang Prabang had traditionally been Laos’ foremost center of silver art and craft where the country’s foremost silversmiths received royal patronage and commissioned to create the most beautiful and intricate silver pieces for the exclusive use of the royal family and royal temples. Here the most talented artisans learned and competed with each other for the attention of the royal households and the families of the rich and powerful. For this reason, until the abolishment of the monarchy in 1975, Luang Prabang was a thriving silver center with numerous silver workshops operated by master silversmiths and their following of aspiring apprentices all horning their skills in the art of silver smithing and crafting.
Following the regime change of 1975 and the subsequent political turmoil, many previous government officials, business people, intellectuals, members of the royal households, and crafts people fled the country. The few crafts people who remained saw their business plunged, forcing some to change their profession or leave Luang Prabang to seek employment in other cities, like Vientiane and Pakse. Today, one finds very few silversmiths in Luang Prabang – most are either very old or have given up their crafts completely.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, silver trading and silver crafting declined quite drastically, since very few people could afford to buy silver anymore. However, the ancient art of silver crafting never died out; it persisted and was maintained by a few master silversmiths who loved the craft and despite weak demand continued to preserve their art producing mainly silver ritual objects, such as silver bowls used for temple offerings or cultural festivals. They also continued to produce some adornments such as silver belts worn by women with their Lao skirts (xinn), and simple but elegant silver ear-rings and hairpins. Only the very rich during those hard times could afford pure silver; most common folk had to make do with silver-plated pieces, which while less precious, were none the less beautiful.
In terms of designs, the most common designs etched into the silver objects continued to be those taken from Buddhist art, Lao mythology and legends, and also nature, for example, Buddha images, mythical dragons (naga), birds, frog, flowers and insects, and so on. Many of the designs typical of the silverware of Luang Prabang continued to be popular, for example designs of the 3-headed elephant; stupas; champa flower; pi-khune flower; fish-roe, and naga head, and so on.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, most of the silver workshops in Laos were small backyard establishments where a master might take on at only two or three apprentices. All the work was done by hand using traditional tools, a tradition which continues even today. Since work was hard, and income from silverwork miniscule, few apprentices stayed on in the trade for very long. Most gave up and took up other types of employment. Those who were skillful were also often recruited to work in silver factories in Thailand.
Since about 2000, Laos’ economic and political situation took a turn for the better. The Lao government adopted more market friendly policies and encouraged foreign investment, trade and tourism. As trade and tourism thrived, demand for Lao handcrafts like silver jewelry and silverware also increased, thereby breathing life back to this ancient art form. The discerning silver buyers liked the high grade silver used in Laos, and the intricacy of patterns and elegance of the Lao jewelry and silverware. As the Lao people got richer, they too began to buy more silver, not only for ritual use, but increasingly for home decoration, and personal adornment, especially silver bracelets, necklaces, and ear rings.
As the market expanded, business for the more well-known silver masters took a positive turn. As orders grew, some became confident enough to expand their workshops, taking on more youngsters to train and hiring more workers and transferring their ancient skills to more young Lao.
Nowadays, the bigger silver workshops in Vientiane have as many as 40-50 workers and apprentices producing a large range of traditional and modern designs to meet the increasing domestic and foreign demand for Lao silver.
As one of Saoban’s goal is to promote Lao culture and handcrafts, Saoban now works with some of the most skilled silver masters trained in the Luang Prabang tradition and link them to discerning buyers at home and abroad who are not afraid of paying high prices for top quality products. As more and more people come to know about the beauty and unique quality of Lao handmade silver, the silver heritage of Laos is bound to be able to reclaim its place in the Lao art culture and tradition.
 Many of the designs seen in the silver pieces are similar to those seen on temple carvings and temple walls as all these designs drew inspiration from the same sources of Lao mythology and legends, and from the natural environment and daily life of the people who made them.
Lao silverware is more than 95% pure, unlike the silverware in most other countries, including Thailand, which is usually only 92.5% sterling silver. The near 100% silver content of silverware in Laos is a testimony of the high quality of the workmanship of Lao silversmiths who work mainly by hand to mould, twist, twine, and pull the very soft high-grade silver into the desired shapes and patterns.
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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