The last silver engraver on Po Ly Ngai mountain

Although silver jewelry making is known as a traditional craft of the Nung ethnic minority group in Hoang Su Phi district of Ha Giang Province, only a few people know how to carve antique patterns on silver jewelry. Chang Thanh To living on Po Ly Ngai peak is the single silver graver who can make 12 sets of traditional jewelries for Nung brides.

Chang Thanh To does not remember clearly how he got involved in his family’s craft. In his memory, he learned to master the carving of Nung silver jewelry when he was as young as 20. Before he passed away, his father told To that “Wearing silver jewelry -the very spirit of the Nung- is our custom, without it we cannot understand our origin and ancestors. That’s why, you must not abandon this craft.” His father’s last words were the motive for To to spend two-thirds of his life making sophisticated jewelry bearing the cultural traits of the Nung.

Weighing silver before making jewelry.

Chang Thanh To at work.

The step of shaping silver.

Laminating silver to make jewelry.

Shaping a fish.

Jewelry in the shapes of fish, bird and crab is popular for the Nung in Hoang Su Phi.

Chang Thanh To engraves patterns on a bracelet with the help of his wife.

He uses pine resin for shaping.

Children in the village watch while To is working.

According to Nung custom, every bride receives a set of silver jewelry from the groom’s family as a wedding present. The jewelry is pretty expensive because not only are they all made of quality silver but it takes a lot of time to carve elegant patterns on them as well.

According to Chang Thanh To, a set of jewelry for a Nung bride comprises a necklace, a chatelaine, a bracelet, a brooch, a pair of earrings and buttons and beads which are all made of silver and elegantly carved with beautiful patterns.

Showing his dirty, black, calloused hands due to hard work, To sadly said “My whole life is devoted to silver carving, but at times this craft could not support me and my family.”

It was the time about ten years ago when cheap imitation silver items mushroomed in the local market. Nung young men asked why they should spend an amount equivalent to the value of a buffalo to make a traditional silver bracelet when they could buy an imitation one at just a hundred thousand of dong (around USD 10) in the market. Older people also were in favor of using imitated silver pieces, reassuring themselves that they were too poor to afford gorgeous traditional silver jewelry and their ancestors would forgive them for that.
At that time, To felt so lonely and heart-broken to see the cultural treasure of his ancestors was being lost as Nung brides were no longer wearing traditional silver jewelry in their weddings.

But the hard time for the old silver carver also passed when the living conditions of the Nung improved thanks to their planting of tea and cardamom. Nung grooms starting buying traditional silver jewelry for their brides again. People have increasingly asked To to make jewelry for their wives even though a set of silver jewelry sophisticatedly carved with floral or animal-shaped patterns may cost as much as VND 40 million (roughly USD 1,900).

To is happy to see that old values of the Nung passed from one generation to another could finally be revived.

Keen on restoring this traditional craft, To, with Ly Sao Tin, another old silver engraver, encouraged their descendants and villagers to bring silver jewelry for sale in the local market which opens every Sunday in Vinh Quang district. Visitors to this market now can easily find Nung women carrying much silver jewelry for sale.

Nevertheless, To is worried about the future of this craft once he dies, as none of his current descendants are interested in silver carving while in Hoang Su Phi, he is the single carver of silver for Nung brides.

A traditional necklace of the Nung made by To.

Another beautiful jewelry made by To.

It takes To weeks to make such a sophiscated brooch.

A relative of To sells his jewelry in the local market of Vinh Quang district.

To’s jewelry lures Nung women going to the market.

A child cap with hundreds of details made by To.

Nung people wear jewelry not only in festive events but while working as well.

Story: Thuc Hien – Photos: Thong Thien