Silver cluster spirit of Chiang Mai’s Wualai Community faces declining popularity

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The Wualai community in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai has been well-known for over a hundred years for its silverware craftsmanship. However, the handmade silver’s popularity and sales volume of silver products has declined for several years.

Only some 20 silversmiths remain in the community and they fear that they will be the last generation continuing their century-old knowledge and skills.

“I have children, but they don’t want to do it. It’s not hard work, but they have other choices, so they want more comfortable jobs like being a teacher, a policeman, or a civil servant. So, those who ‘re left here are only my generation,” said Arpa Saengchan, a silversmith in the community.

The community’s crisis resulted from several factors that have led the silversmiths and their children to start other careers. Production costs have significantly increased, while the market popularity for silverware has lowered, along with the fact that there are not many silverware shops in the community anymore.

“Due to economic changes, silver has become ten times more expensive. At present, the price is at Bt900/gramme, so the popularity of silverware has started to face problems. In the past it was easily bought and affordable,” said Dr Chawachart Sukondhapatipak from Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna, but now it is comparatively expensive.

The changes that have happened in the community have prompted Chiang Mai province to try to revive the Wualai Community as a creative tourism destination to preserve the priceless local wisdom and traditions.

Recently, a wisdom handicraft fair was held to spread the local lore and uniqueness to the public in hope to regain the silverwares’ popularity and to make the Wualai Community to become a place to study the Lanna art.

One example showing the preservation of the community’s importance is at Wat Sri Suphan where local silversmiths have jointly been creating a silver ubosot, or prayer room, believed to be the first of its kind.

“We have been building since 2004. It’s been nine years and we haven’t finished it yet, as it is art. Our local silversmiths are doing it as their first ubosot. (It may also be the world’s first silver ubosot.) This is considered local wisdom and innovation to create this art for the country, religion, and the King,” said Provost Pithak Sutthikhun of Wat Sri Suphan in Chiang Mai.

The community also plans a course to elevate the craftsmanship standards of silversmiths in order to add more economic value to the Wualai Community itself.