Jewelry Spotlight: Karen Cups
Strikingly large fronts adorn these expertly made silver plugs
These plugs are one of my favorite Southeast Asian styles and this specific pair is one of my prized collection pieces. I love the shape, and the patina these have taken on over the years is exquisite. These plugs are worn by women of the Karen, a collection of ethnic sub-groups (sometimes referred to as "Hill Tribes") from the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma).
The Karen are masterful metalsmiths and wear a wide range of silver plugs, earrings, and bangles. Silver is considered currency and most jewelry is created from it, thus silver jewelry is both craft and a display of wealth.
These plugs were collected in Northern Thailand some time ago, and the condition of the thread which binds the pair for safe-keeping indicates that they had been unworn and stored since long before I purchased them. They are pre-Vietnam war but I am unsure of an actual age.
Referred to as "cup" or "drum" earrings, these particular plugs have a very large front flare that many may recognize as being similar to the trumpet style flares of Prehispanic cultures. The rear flare is also quite large and it's my understanding that pieces like this were worn for long periods of time, so the large flares help make them daily wearable while doing normal village tasks without risk of loss.
Wear Size: 21mm
Front Flare: 47mm
Rear Flare: 28mm
Overall Width: 20mm
Made with basic hand-tools, these pieces were formed and soldered from two pieces of very thin silver sheet. The first sheet was used to create the overall shape of the front and rear flares, establishing a large hollow funnel shape (the front flare) and rear flare. The second piece of silver sheet is actually an overlay which closes the front. You can see the edge of that sheet wrapped tightly against the outside edge of the front flare.
Viewed from the rear it's evident that the entire front face is actually hollow. The rear of the bowl you see does not touch the interior - there is an air space that gets thinner and thinner until the two sheets meet at the front edge, where they are soldered and folded.
Unfortunately I have not found any good photographs of this exact style being worn online, but great photographs of Karen women wearing the cup style (and the marvelous brightly colored clothing their tribe is known for) can be found in my suggested resources below.
If you enjoyed this little jewelry history lesson or have any feedback, please don't hesitate to let us know. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to next time!
Resources for further reading
Peoples of the Golden Triangle
The Vanishing Tribes of Burma