Since ancient times, silver has been perceived as a precious metal, coveted almost as much as gold, and often used to confer social status. This has been true around the world, and Cambodian and Burmese societies are no different, with both nations boasting a rich tradition of silverware craftsmanship that stretches back centuries.
Here in Hong Kong, one place to investigate the unique histories of Cambodian and Burmese silverware is at the Altfield Gallery, an antique and interior design resource with a contemporary collection of China and south East Asia inspired pieces that range from beautifully detailed animal boxes commissioned by Khmer artisans in Cambodia, to an excellent collection of bowls and vases from Myanmar.
Altfield was established in 1980 by Amanda Clark, an English designer from an old China Coast family, and David Halperin, a Harvard educated American lawyer. Since then, the pair have committed themselves to sourcing treasures from across Southeast Asia.
Throughout history, the rare metal has taken on various symbols in different parts of the world. Ancient Egyptians referred to silver as “white gold,” while in Europe it was associated with the moon and given the name “Luna” by medieval alchemists. Characters in written Chinese refer to its “brightness” and “purity” while in Cambodia silver was paired with the royal metal, gold.
Across Southeast Asia, silver grew in prominence with the 17th century seeing silver coins emerge in the markets, many of which would be melted down in order to make silverware. Utensils and religious objects would be some of the most common objects crafted out of the luxurious material.
Part of the charms of silver comes from it being more malleable than other, lesser metals. This makes it easier for skilled craftsmen to transform into jewellery and beautiful objects with intricate detail.
Cambodian and Burmese societies long recognised this trait, and have over centuries developed techniques that enable them to hand make richly decorated treasures of high craftsmanship. Burma’s history of silverware dates back at least to the 9th century, while in pre-colonial times its practise was widespread. Cambodia’s relationship with silverware spans centuries.
Visit Altfield’s gallery at Unit 249, Prince’s Building, 10 Chater Road, Central. Click here for more information.