Create your own, one-of-a-kind silver ring, whether as a gift for somebody or just a way to treat yourself
There’s always been an aura of mystery surrounding silver, purported to do everything from improving circulation and promoting healing to staving off infections and warning to the presence of toxins. Even the art of silversmithing has been shrouded in secrecy, especially in the Vietnam of the 18th century, when only craftsmen from China had the skills needed to fashion the highest-quality silver items for royalty and nobles.
According to lore, a man named Cao Dinh Do went to great lengths to penetrate the secretive, closed-off community of Chinese silversmiths who serviced the Nguyen lords in the capital of Thanh Long in the mid-1700s. Driven by a fascination with silversmithing, the son of farmers learned Chinese to the extent he was able to pass himself off as a Chinaman and apprenticed with expert craftsmen, learning not only how to work with silver but also how to build the tools and machines needed. Once fluent, he moved to Ke Mon, just outside of Hue, and established a silversmithing community there, spreading the art across Vietnam.
Following in his footsteps is Le Quoc Thanh, co-owner of Vietnam Silver House (68 Nghia Thuc, D5). Set amidst Chinatown’s so-called “gold and silver street”, a row of shophouses catering to the city’s wholesale jewelry market, Vietnam Silver House is a jewelry shop, museum, and workshop housed in an attractive three-story building.
“Vietnamese craftsmen are as skilled as anywhere in the world, but no one knows because we traditionally produce for other brands, much like the shoes we make here for Nike and Adidas,” Ky laments. In an effort to introduce the world to the art of Vietnamese silversmithing highlighted by its finely detailed craftsmanship and unique designs, Ky has opened Saigon’s first silver workshop where in two hours, guests can fashion a ring or bracelet to call their own.
After visiting the museum for a look into the history of silversmithing and watching a short video on modern metalworking, guests head into the brightly lit workshop and start by selecting a ring or bracelet from the extensive catalogue. I pick a simple silver ring, but tell Mr. May, the head trainer, that I like the hand-hammered look.
“Let’s make that instead,” he smiles, giving me a piece of silver wire that is alternately my enemy and my friend as I work through the various stages of silversmithing, including sawing, annealing (heating the metal to keep it soft), filing, soldering, hammering and, finally, polishing.
There’s a certain satisfaction to creating something worthwhile with your own two hands, no matter how clumsily, a feeling of accomplishment that can’t be bought. “You’re doing great!” says Mr. May, playing the role of cheerleader and physical trainer as he calls out words of encouragement while adjusting my jackrabbit tempo on the foot bellow to power the torch. Luckily, silver is a forgiving metal, able to be shaped and reshaped without too much difficulty. “It’s not like sewing where if you make one mistake, you have to throw the garment away,” points out Mr. May. While 925 is the international standard for sterling silver jewelry (i.e. 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals), Vietnam Silver House uses a proprietary blend of 950 to better retain its brightness in Vietnam’s tropical climate.
I happily spend the morning sawing through the wire and filing down the ends (supposedly with the strength of a firm handshake, but my wobbly technique ends up meaning the joints don’t line up perfectly), and shaping it around a tapered, cylindrical rod called a mandrel. At this point, it looks like a sad, lopsided oval, but Mr. May shows me how to evenly pound the ring with a mallet to make it perfectly circular, every now and then, flipping down his magnifying visor to better inspect my (shoddy) work.
We soon move over to the soldering station where I put the blowtorch to a tiny piece of silver, watching it change from solid to liquid, melting to seamlessly join the ring. I quickly dip it into a water bath to cool the metal, followed by various pickle solutions to help the solder adhere and to clean the ring, before adding texture by making little dents in the ring with a pointed mallet for a hand- hammered finish. After more rigorous filing and polishing, the ring finally looks like something I’d actually wear. “That’s the beauty of making something by hand,” says Mr. May. “Each piece has a soul to it that you won’t find in mass produced items.”
For those who’d rather buy than make, the ground floor showroom has beautiful yet surprisingly reasonably priced pieces for sale from the most notable silversmithing villages across Vietnam: incredibly detailed filigree work from Dinh Cong near Hanoi, silver carvings from Dong Xam in northeastern Vietnam’s Thai Binh Province, and wonderfully intricate jewelry from Ke Mon, just outside of Hue. “These ancient villages produce stunning work, but they don’t know much about marketing themselves,” says Ky who himself comes from a background of marketing and market research. Ky hopes to propel the Vietnam Silver House brand onto the international scene, highlighted by modern takes on traditional Vietnamese motifs such as lanterns, conical hats and dragonflies as well as iconic city landmarks for a wearable souvenir of Saigon.
The silver workshop costs USD35 and includes a visit to the museum, all tools and instruction, and 3 grams of silver, enough to make a ring. More silver can be purchased for a modest supplement to make larger items, like bracelets. Reservations one day in advance are strongly recommended. For more info, visit www.facebook.com/VietnamSilverHouse!
Images by Vy Lam