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71-year-old jeweler hammers out a living in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

By Ngan Duong    June 9, 2020 | 11:38 pm PT
True to his roots, Nguyen Chi Thanh still manually hammers pieces of metal into intricate pieces of jewelry at the heart of contemporary, bustling Hanoi.

For many years, an elongated house has stood at 83 Hang Bac (meaning silver) Street, Hoan Kiem District in the downtown, its small door obscured by large neighboring storefronts. The tiny boutique, as if containing a fragment of old Hanoi, leaves visitors in awe. The traditional, handmade jewelry store of many generations is now geared by 71-year-old Nguyen Chi Thanh.

Nguyen Chi Thanh at his work desk. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

Nguyen Chi Thanh at his work desk. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

Familiar thumps of the hammer, screeches of grinding metal infused with vintage melodies make up the daily soundtrack at Thanh’s store. Eyes glued to the sheet of white gold, lips pressed tightly together, the craftsman meticulously carves out complicated details.

In front of him, at eye-level, hangs a lightbulb with half a beer can as lampshade. Beer cans and chipped bowls holding tools and scraps line the table edges, many of which were passed down from older crafters. Worn by time, these makeshift containers all have a rusty exterior. If anything, the dilapidated state of the items is charming and makes Thanh’s workspace resemble an arts installation.

"The tabletop is full of junk, wood and metal scraps, nothing special really. The table itself comes from my grandfather and was handed down to me by my father. Over there is the table used by my great grandfather but the wood has decayed so much that I just keep it for display.

"Sometimes tourists come not to purchase jewelry but just to watch me work and look at my makeshift storage system and tools," he laughed whilst pointing at his old toolkit on the table.

Thanh sits on a small wooden stool, in front of him sits his well-equipped and trusty work desk.

"This stool is not the most pleasant because it doesn’t have a back nor cushion, however it is convenient and perfect for my job. I even have to minimize using the fan since the wind can blow away gold sheet particles and affect product quality," he said.

At this point, he reached for and showed a metal bucket under a table drawer. "These small gold specks are very valuable! I reheat them to add details."

Thanh’s family is originally from Dinh Cong in Hoang Mai District, a village renowned for its talented jewelers. Even when Thanh’s family moved uptown to Hang Bac Street in the Old Quarter, they continued to make and sell jewelry. Thanh is currently the fourth generation in his family to uphold the tradition.

Thanh’s passion for making jewelry hit early, ever since he was "in mom’s belly" listening to the rattling sounds of his dad crafting and poking around on a daily basis, he said. "When I was nine or 10, I always played with the tools and before I knew it the skills came to me naturally."

Artisanal jewelry pieces require time, effort, and an eye for detail. Simple rings take up one day while more complicated designs take two to three days to finish. As a perfectionist, he only takes individual orders rather than bulk and never rushes a job. "Being a jeweler requires one to be patient as the steps simply can’t be rushed."

To make a silver bangle the craftsman has to manually heat the silver for 10 to 15 minutes, flattening it with a hammer, stretching it, and shaping it, before carving out patterns.

"Industrial silver widely employed nowadays has molds so features like prongs don’t have to be manually carved. Whereas the handmade procedure has the craftsman cut, shape, and solder each metal bar. There are many steps to it," the 71-year-old explained. Additionally, the jeweler has to be skilled enough to estimate amounts of metal needed for each product. According to Thanh, beautiful jewelry is simple, delicate, and not excessive.

No flashy decorations needed at Thanh’s store, the handmade rings, necklace charms, and gemstone bracelets shine through the glass display on their own. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

No flashy decorations needed at Thanh’s store, the handmade rings, necklace charms, and gemstone bracelets shine through the glass display on their own. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong.

The pieces are either his creations or commissioned by customers.

"I can offer any design, as an artisanal jeweler I have the freedom to be creative. Some customers bring here their tarnished or broken jewelry that is rejected by many stores for me to fix," Thanh said.

With decades of experience, he truthfully admitted he cannot remember his most favorite jewelry piece. It is the customer’s reaction that inspirits him to work hard. "Seeing a bright and pleased smile on a customer’s face as I hand them the product is what makes me happiest," he noted.

Aside from Vietnamese customers, his humble boutique has also attracted many foreign visitors. They usually place custom orders, providing him with pictures or simply describing what they want.

"Foreigners really appreciate artisanal products like these. I can’t speak English so my son would help translate when he used to work with me. But even without him, my body language suffices just fine, we are still able to communicate well," Thanh said.

Despite handling a lot of gold and precious gemstones, the jeweler said it is not a career to get rich by. "The commission I get for each product is not much, one can earn a lot more from trading gold".

Thanh earns anywhere from a few hundred thousand VND up to VND1 million ($43), depending on how time-consuming and complex the design is. Even though there are hardships, he determinedly took up the challenge because to him, his career is a family heirloom.

It’s a career passed down for generations, my children and grandchildren shouldn’t have to buy a silver bangle from elsewhere because they want one".

Thanh is one of seven children and the only to continue the family jewelry business. During his childhood, society underwent many changes, putting him and his siblings under financial strain. As a result, they each went down a different career path to make a living.

Thanh chose to continue the family tradition by becoming an artisanal jeweler because he was passionate and considered to have the most delicate yet steady hands for the purpose. Thanh’s children and grandchildren are also artisanal jewelers. His son is currently making traditional jewelry in Sweden whilst his grandson is helping him out at the store.

Nguyen Chi Thanh manipulates pieces of white gold into a bracelet. Video by Ngan Duong.

The store used to be very busy and Thanh would work relentlessly until 10 p.m. almost every day. Now, living alone has Thanh closing the store four hours earlier at 6 p.m. instead.

"I’m older now with less energy to take on as big of a workload as I did before. I feel remorseful about that. Hang Bac is now filled to the brim with stores selling identical bulk-produced industrial handicrafts," he said.

Growing up on Hang Bac Street, Thanh has witnessed the evolution of the Old Quarter over many decades. "Artisanal crafters and products, a characteristic of Hanoi and cultural heritage, have been and are gradually disappearing. We tend to look to the West for new and innovative products and that can diminish the appreciation of handcrafted artisanal work."

The Old Quarter was once the center for artisans and their products, known for its iconic 36 streets. Each street corresponded to an artisanal product or trade, like Hang Gai (hemstitch) for hemstitch fabric, threads, and ropes or Hang Ga (chicken) for poultry. Over a millennium, the street names remained while its corresponding artisanal workshops slowly dissipated.

Today, Hang Bac (silver) is one of the remaining streets still true to its name. Despite being only 300 meters long, the street boasts over a hundred jewelry shops and hole-in-the-wall’s of different sizes. Here, visitors could also learn more about the history of goldsmiths and jewelry craftsmen at Kim Ngan communal house at 42 Hang Bac Street.

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