Silver jewelry and repoussé work have been a significant part of the material culture of Tibet for centuries. While objects such as offering bowls, skullcups, butter lamps, ewers, portable shrines and incense burners serve religious purposes, many other type of objects are important in the secular life of Tibetans. This secular silver material culture includes items such as necklaces, bracelets, rings, hair ornaments, amulet cases, vessels, belts or waistbands and hooks for milk pails or butter churners.
The discussion presented here focuses on secular silver objects made in the workshop of a traditional Tibetan silversmith in the town of Songpan in northwestern Sichuan Province, China (traditionally comprising part of eastern Tibet). With interruptions in traditional practices during the Cultural Revolution, the question has been raised about whether or not such practices have continued . This research is part of an effort to document traditional Tibetan craft practices and identify threats to their preservation. Workshop processes start with the craftsman acquiring the silver, making or buying tools, arranging the work area, and the customer commissioning a piece. Technical processes include working the silver ingot to form an object, annealing and quenching, making silver wire, filigree, granulation, soldering, inlay work, pickling and finishing.
Some changes have been introduced in how the workshop operates during the lifetime of the current craftsman, leading to differences between his procedures and that of his father, under whom he apprenticed. Some of these changes are due to technological advances (new equipment becoming available) and some are due to larger societal changes (for example, new government regulations regarding purchasing of raw silver). These changes are often in technological style affecting the fabrication stages, but not necessarily visible in completed objects, which retain their traditional forms, visual style and functions.