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Passing on the old traditions

One man is keeping alive the centuries-old tradition for fine metalwork in the Northeast

Puan's silver work features striking and sophisticated patterns. In 2003 he won the Outstanding Artist award in the field of silver-making craftsmanship from Maha Sarakham University.

Dawn breaks over Ban Khewa Sirin in Surin province. A dark, lean man starts his daily routine, energetically kindling his old-fashioned furnace which has helped keep the passion for his beloved craft burning for over two decades.

His work keeps his ancestors' skills and the dying art of silver-making _ once traditional among people of Cambodian origin _ alive.

Puan Jiewthong, 63, is a seasoned master metalworker who creates a wide-range of gold and silver jewellery and accessories including earrings, belts, bracelets, necklaces and rings. He is also adept at making replicas of local symbols mirroring local culture, art, religion, and traditions such as carts, elephants, fishing tackle, traditional Thai betel-chewing receptacles and ancient household utensils popular among people from the city who love to use them as decorative items or special gifts.

One of Puan's ancestors, Khunsikarinbumrung, was a Cambodian millionaire who moved to Ban Nang Mud, and later to Ban Khok in Surin province, some 270 years ago due to war in Cambodia. He was a respected goldsmith whose work was exquisite and sought-after by the local nobility. He made a living in his new hometown by making and selling gold jewellery and ornaments to villagers in the area.

Thanks to Puan Jiewthong, the art of making silver jewellery has flourished in the northeastern region and the ancient-designs have become a hot commodity among fashionable people who love to wear silver.
To keep his craft alive, he passed on his skills to his children. His great-grandsons also had the opportunity to learn the artistry of their ancestors while they were still young.

Currently, Puan and his son are the only members of his family who still devote themselves to preserving their ancestral artistry.

"This ancient Khmer art might die out soon, but my son and I are trying hard to keep it alive as it has been passed down for generations. It's our family business and I won't let it die out during my lifetime," said the craftsman.

Puan's passion for the craft developed when he was just five years old. He loved to see his great-grandfather working and making gold jewellery and gold ornaments.

"While my friends loved to play around in the village I stayed at home and helped my great-grandfather. I enjoyed seeing him working on the ancient designs. But at the time I had no idea I would become a craftsman like him. I didn't want to follow in his footsteps. I would have liked to have my own orchard and grow trees," he reminisced.

One day that all changed.

"My great-grandfather allowed me to try one design and he was satisfied with my work. So was I. I fell in love with the work and have been ever since. I kept practising daily," he recalled.

Puan still has good eyesight and strong arms. It is a familiar sight to see him sitting in front of his shabby house, working at his forge and vigorously hammering silver plate into a flat sheet so he can mark out the designs for both the large-and small-scale details that demand great patience and elaborate work.

Traditionally, gold was the material used and he sold his work in neighbouring provinces, including Si Sa Ket and Buri Ram.

"I visited other communities by foot. Very often I had to stay overnight in the villages I visited. Sometimes I could sell all my work in one day, but sometimes I could spend 10 days showing my products to possible clients. In those days, people loved to buy gold jewellery and ornaments because they could keep them for a rainy day and sell them easily if they needed money," explained the artisan.

After Puan established a niche in the local market and started making a good income, many villagers jumped onto the bandwagon. And they all learned the art from him.

"I was so glad when other people wanted to learn about this traditional skill.Our community became a gold-making centre. Every household could earn extra income from the work. Loaded with our valuable products, we had to band together to visit other villages for our own safety. Otherwise we might have been robbed or even killed," recalled the veteran goldsmith.

Yet eventually they all gave up except Puan.

"Although the villagers could earn good money from selling gold jewellery, this kind of work is time-consuming. Besides, it requires concentration and painstaking effort. Talent and a high level of skill are also required to be successful," said the craftsman.

Puan had been a goldsmith for 13 years when the price of gold soared. He then had to resort to a new, cheaper material to attract customers.

"At the time the price of gold went so high I felt I had reached a dead end. It was no longer worth investing in the business. So I came up with the idea of using silver instead," he said.

And he hit the jackpot _ his silver jewellery, especially his earrings, rings, bracelets and necklaces, become very popular among teenagers who loved to wear silver.

"I took my work to Mahboonkrong Shopping Centre and Chatuchak Weekend Market. Unbelievably, the vendors bought all of my goods. It became a brisk business. After that I no longer took my products into Bangkok; buyers came to me and selected the pieces they wanted," he said.

Apart from finished silver jewellery and ornaments, Puan also fashions silver into different basic patterned pieces so his customers can make necklaces or bracelets themselves. The hottest item is pa kuem, a small round silver piece carved with various traditional patterns. Apart from these, Puan also creates novel and striking designs that combine the classic with the contemporary. The natural environment _ animals, trees and fruits _ are the main inspiration for his new creations.

"I produce many new patterns such as lai kra rok (squirrel pattern), lai phra arthit (sun pattern), lai maeng mume (spider pattern) and lai bai mai (leaf pattern). Most of them feature the beauty found in nature. I love to keep the wonders of nature alive in my work. During my leisure time I walk around my village and explore the natural world to appreciate its beauty and then use it in my work," explained Puan.

Youngsters are his main customers.

"Teenagers love modern styles so I have to adjust my work to suit their tastes. However, I still preserve the old designs," he said.

According to Puan, the hardest part of working silver is the sculpting process required when shaping the silver.

"That's why the price of silver jewellery in complicated designs is rather high. It takes a month to finish one necklace and several months to perfect a woman's silver belt," he explained.

Old coins with some silver content are the main source of his raw material. He normally has to pay about eight baht for each old coin, but the price of coins is currently higher, since coin dealers from the city come into the villages and pay higher prices for them, sometimes as much as 25 baht for each one.

"That has become a huge obstacle for my work. But I can't give up now. I still love my work and would like to keep it alive. It's rather a tough fight between the artisan and the city merchants," said Puan.

Although the name Puan may not be familiar to most people, he is popular among devotees of silver who will search for the magnificent quality of his silver jewellery and ornaments. His house is currently one of the tourist destinations of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Those who want to buy his work directly can visit his workshop and witness the whole process of hand-crafting silver jewellery.

Over time, Puan has seen the loss of much of his local culture, but he has a plan to incorporate the styles of northeastern carts once used extensively in the region, into his designs.

"We have lost what truly belongs to our regional community while we have embraced the Central culture and traditions. I have special connection with the designs of ancient carts which are now on the brink of extinction. I have to pursue my dream now because I'm getting old. I really want to leave them for the generation to come and preserve my Khmer art," he said.

Although Puan only sleeps for three hours a day, he still feels rewarded by his work.

"Luckily I'm quite healthy. I can work all day long. My work is like meditation. It brings me great satisfaction and spiritual happiness. I truly live for it," he said.

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