During the 19th century, Kachchhi silver was made famous by colonialists who featured silverworks in some of the Great Exhibitions in France and England. Kutch silver is known for its white quality which resists tarnish. The artisans use brightly coloured glass called meena to accentuate traditional designs.
Today, traditional silver tribal jewellery remains an integral part of village dress. Jewellery is not just a means for embellishment, but is a mark of identity, a display of wealth and therefore, a symbol of pride. Also, being mostly of nomadic origins, the people here have little or no security. So, the precious metal is actually a way of investment, generally worn in the purest possible form and always kept under vigilance. The tribals fall back upon these ornaments at the time of natural calamity. A traditional tribal woman can be seen wearing ½ to 1 Kg of silver ornaments every day. The silver articles are not just ornamental but also serve useful purpose. Women wear broad kadas with poky nail like protrusions on the surface, which is a traditional design, but it provides safety from wild animals when they are in the forest, rearing cattle and collecting wood. Thoriya, a stud, is said to be important for acupuncture points, to ensure good health. The ornaments are used daily and hence; often one can find things of utility like toothpicks and ear cleaners in silver, dangling in the form of lockets.
Each silversmith specializes in a particular tribal jewellery tradition, creating an array of products from bangles to earrings to anklets. The jewellers and the communities where they work have strong relationships since they have lived and worked together for generations. Age-old trade links with Arabian, Persian and European countries have greatly influenced the form and the style of these ornaments. As a result, there are some thirty-five different kinds of the earrings alone for the various communities (like Rabari, Ahir, Bharvad, Jat, Satvaras).
Rabaris can be easily identified by looking at their women folk, who are usually clad with long black head scrapes, distinctive heavy brass earrings which hang low, stretching the earlobes. They tattoo magical symbols on their necks, breasts and arms. Their jewellery is modest in comparison to other tribal women.
The Vatla is a spiral necklace worn by Harijan women. Nagali, spring earrings are a sign of marriage.
Bungri or Phul, worn in helix by Rabari and Bharvad men, sits on top of the ear like an umbrella and is a prime mark for the identity of tribal men of this region.
Jewellery Making Process
Procured in the form of biscuits and bricks from Rajkot and Ahmedabad, silver undergoes a number of processes before shining against the dusky background of its patron. A variety of techniques are employed by the artisan to get the desired effect while making these traditional marvels.
The artisans emboss and cut, spring wind thin and thick wires to get conical shapes, beat patterns and make concentric wire filigrees with granulation. Silver is mostly preferred in its original color, only in some cases to add accents, Meena work is done.
The 2001 Earthquake had a massive impact on Kutch silver craft. Houses and the workplaces of silver traders, silversmiths, and the small Kansara artisan community got damaged. Local communities, which form the major market for silver jewellery, were also affected by the disaster. Shops were closed for 18-24 months and artisans were without work. Some turned to wage labour, some changed their trade, and some remained unemployed. These factors led to a debilitating cycle of low liquidity, low investment in silver, and low production.