Pieces of Silver

Mark Sloneker’s Orijyn brings traditional Lao Lum silverwork to market with sustainable business practices

Ask Orijyn founder Mark Sloneker how he ended up in Lao People’s Democratic Republic helping silversmiths and weavers earn decent livelihoods with traditional craft – and be prepared to listen. Mark is not a man of few words. But how could he be? His knowledge of Lao silver and silk traditions, of contemporary Lao life, and his views on cross-cultural artisan business development, was all learned firsthand and there are mountains of detail behind every fact he relays. 

Mark’s facts can be reduced to simple statements. Orijyn currently offers painstakingly crafted Lao Lum silver jewelry to about thirty stores internationally. Traditional techniques and motifs dominate the design vocabulary of the company’s 400 weavers and 50 silversmiths. Orijyn pays its artisans more than fairly, and profits go back to Laos to support the education of young people.  

Simple statements don’t capture, however, the place silverwork holds in Lao culture. It goes back several centuries, and was a splendid part of court life. Many motifs offered by Orijyn were initially reserved for royal use, and some resonate with symbolism and myth in ways that have been lost in neighboring Southeast Asian cultures. The stylized representation of the Dok Phikoun flower, for example, is still treasured for its power to bring good fortune, long life and protection.  

Silver jewelry was bought for ceremonies and special occasions, and as an investment. It was often buried in clay pots in backyards – a safer place to keep the family’s treasure than in historically volatile banks. Silver work represents family treasure even today – especially to the few artisans still skilled enough to work the way their ancestors did. 

“The amount of time and hand skills needed to turn raw bullion into silver wire, make the flowers, and mount them on the base chain involves many people. The making of the flowers is done by two families in Vientiane. These are then given to other silver smiths who make the rest of the pieces required for the pattern. A master silversmith mounts the pieces on the chain because only a master can coax the patterns into perfect, flexible form. The master’s students will cut the chains to length and mount the clasps. Many people and skills are involved in each piece,” relays Mark. 

The local audience for such skilled work is largely tourists. Mark explains: “Most of the tourists’ money goes to hotels and restaurants, but some does trickle down to silversmiths when jewelry is purchased. We opened a store in Vientiane to market the jewelry and also the silk from the weavers the organization supports. We also work with stores in Luang Prabang. Right now, though, export produces more consistent revenue than the highly seasonal tourist trade.”

One of Mark’s motivations for developing new markets and keeping artisan incomes consistent has to do with preserving the richness of Lao silver traditions. “Specific families produce specific patterns and as Laos opens up to the rest of the world, it also allows people to leave. Some departing families have taken with them their knowledge of the craft. We’re focused on trying to create enough revenue stream to entice the next generation to embrace this cultural treasure and learn the skill to keep it alive. When we attend the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, I’ve had people from India, the Middle East and other parts of the world come up and say, ‘We used to be able to do this kind of work but it’s lost now.’ I’d like to keep that from happening if I can.” 

Orijyn is part of the Market Incubator Program at Artisan Resource®, August 16-19. Come to their booth and learn about Lao Lum silver. See www.artisanresourceny.com for more information.

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