Jewelry Spotlight: Karen Cups

Strikingly large fronts adorn these expertly made silver plugs

Silver Hill Tribe Karen Cup Ear 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).

Thai Hill Tribe Silver Map

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

Karen Silver Cup Ear Plugs Side View

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.

Karen Cup Silver Ear Plugs Rear View

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!

Jared Karnes

Resources for further reading

Peoples of the Golden Triangle

Peoples of the Golden Triangle
Paul and Elaine Lewis
ISBN: 0-500-97472-1

Quite possibly the best book out there on the rich cultures of the Golden Triangle. Divided into the six primary cultures from the area, the book covers each culture's clothing and ornamentation, village social structure and rituals. There are several gorgeous color spreads of crafts, beads, jewelry, clothing, and ritual items that serve as an invaluable resource catalog of cultural objects. This book is a must-have for anyone interested in Southeast Asian culture or anyone putting together a collection of body modification related texts.

Photographs of Karen Cups can be found on the following pages:
61 - In spread with various adornments
71 - Wear photo of Karen woman
83 - Wear photos of Karen women
91 - Wear photo, Karen woman with child
93 - Multiple wear photos
Check your favorite local book shop (or available online from most major retailers)

The Vanishing Tribes of Burma

The Vanishing Tribes of Burma
Richard K. Diran
ISBN: 0-8174-5559-0

A beautiful book written by traveling gemologist and photographer Richard Diran, this text details many of the ethnic subgroups living in the remote mountains of Myanmar (Burma). While 'Peoples of the Golden Triangle' provides a wealth of cultural information, Diran's book devotes several photograph-heavy pages to each culture, telling their stories visually. Each section starts with a brief cultural overview, followed by wonderful portraits and village photos with supporting text. The last chapter is an Ethnographical History of the peoples of Myanmar which includes supporting information on geographical regions within Myanmar and a social and political history with antique photographs. I consider this text to be a great photographic companion for studying this region of the world.

Photographs of Karen Cups can be found on the following pages:
121 - Wear photo, full page
122 - Wear photo, mostly obscured
Side note: this text also includes a very good section on the Paduang peoples - you may know the women of this tribe as the "long neck" or "giraffe" women, famous for the rings which make their necks appear stretched.

Check your favorite local book shop (or available online from most major retailers)