In Conversation with Myanmar Artisan Tin Win

How old were you when you started to learn the art of goldsmithing?

I began learning the art of goldsmithing from my uncle in 1995 when I was 22. It was just after I arrived in Yangon with barely enough to survive, but my relatives were incredibly supportive. 
Becoming a goldsmith artisan took work; it took three years of continuous training to begin understanding the craft's complexities. During those years, I didn't earn much, and since I couldn't afford to pay for the training, I helped with housework in exchange for learning. Despite the hardships, my family's encouragement, and my passion for goldsmithing kept me going. There are a lot of gold shops and gold workshops in Myanmar. We are the Golden Land, and Myanmar people referred themselves as "Shwe", which means gold. However, few handcrafted gold workshops like Turquoise Mountain and artisan goldsmiths create unique pieces by hand without technology. I take pride that I am one of the few practising artisans who possess this unique and century-old art of goldsmithing in Myanmar. I am contributing to keeping our rich cultural heritage alive by practising and sharing my knowledge with other goldsmiths at the workshop and taking in trainees whenever I can. 

How did you begin your relationship with Pippa Small?

I started working with Turquoise Mountain in 2016, and Pippa and I first met during one of her visits to Yangon. It was just great to talk about anything jewellery - designs, textures, stones, gold, styles, finishing, etc. Pippa’s first collection made in Myanmar was all about flowers. We all know Pippa adores handmade jewellery and craftsmanship and has this incredible ability to design stunning jewellery from any source of inspiration. Working with Pippa is about more than just churning a piece of jewellery. Instead, collaboration and mutual respect allow us to exchange culture and ideas, which helps merge our artistic visions. We don't just create jewellery for the fashion seasons but share a passion for creating unique heirloom pieces that tell stories of our culture, and the art of goldsmithing will always be a great foundation for our friendship. 

Pippa Small and Artisan Tin Win

Did you always know you wanted to make jewellery, or was there another career you saw yourself in?

From a young age, I was amazed by the beauty of jewellery and its interesting creation process. There were moments when I considered and pursued different career paths and even migrated and worked abroad in other sectors. My passion for goldsmithing has always drawn me back to this craft, and no other work has been as fulfilling as being a goldsmith. As long as there is a demand for handcrafted jewellery, I will continue to dedicate myself to this craft. 

Myanmar Artisan Tin Win

With the increase in machine-made jewellery, how do you envision sharing your skills with the future generation of goldsmiths to ensure the continuation of handmade craft?

Finding young people willing to invest the time to learn the skills is challenging, although I'm more than happy to share. We need more jewellery designers like Pippa who appreciate handcrafted jewellery, believe in us, and introduce our work to international clients with a strong appreciation for unique and high-quality handmade jewellery. We also need more clients who will choose our jewellery. We are running out of time, truly. If we don't pass down these traditional techniques, the art of goldsmithing can disappear in a few years. Our door is open to learners who are passionate about learning these craftsmanship skills. But for them to make a living, goldsmiths, jewellery designers and clients, we all need to make this happen. 

Is anyone else in your family engaged with this craftsmanship?

Unfortunately, some of my relatives have chosen to go abroad for better opportunities. I only have one daughter, and she is more interested in pursuing a formal education. While I would love to hand down this heritage craft, there is a lack of interest in learning this traditional skill among my family's younger generation due to the time it takes to master the skill and earn a steady income. 
As you know, unlike paintings, only a few people are willing to pay the price for artisans like us and our jewellery entirely made by hand that takes days and weeks to make.

Can you describe your creative process when making jewellery?
Vipassana Meditation is significant in my jewellery-making process as it helps me maintain mindfulness and a deep connection to my craft. When I sit down to create jewellery, I centre myself through meditation, clearing my mind of distractions and becoming fully present. I apply Vipassana principles by paying close attention to each movement and sensation. Staying mindful helps me focus better on the details and precision required in goldsmithing.
The creative process for making a piece of jewellery starts with gathering inspiration and creating initial sketches. Detailed designs are then developed according to materials and techniques. After selecting metals and gemstones, a silver or wax prototype is crafted. Then our artisans shape, solder, and assemble the final piece and proceed with polishing, setting stones, and adding the finishing touches. Finally, the piece must go through a quality check to ensure it meets the standards of beauty and craftsmanship.

What is the most complicated piece you've made for Pippa Small?

It is not easy to pick out which piece is the hardest to make, as each requires equal effort and different methods of craftsmanship. Each project has its unique challenges. These challenges are what makes each piece special and rewarding to complete. Having said that, the lotus pendant was quite challenging with double layers of petals, tiny gold hinges that help the lotus open and close, gold filaments that look topped with little rounds which look so real, and stones set in the is a masterpiece.

Opening and Closing Lotus Flower
How long did it take you to make your opening and closing lotus necklace? 

The lotus pendant is truly a signature piece. It is just like a real lotus flower. We found a lotus flower in the market. Then, we carefully studied and interpreted it into a lotus pendant with leaves that can open into a lotus flower and close into a lotus bud neatly. The most challenging part was assembling the delicate leaves not fixed to the centrepiece. Leaves are not single layers, but double, so you can imagine how challenging this must have been to realize with small tools and bare hands. Tiny hinges for the leaves cannot be too loose or too tight; I had to achieve the perfect snugness. It is one of the most delicate pieces I've made. This signature pendant took me nearly three weeks to complete. 

Each stage of the process required careful attention to detail and precise craftsmanship. It was pure joy and contentment when the filaments were planted and the stones, representing the receptacle, were set at the centre. Despite the challenges, the satisfaction of seeing the finished product made all the hard work worthwhile. 

What is it like to see pieces you've crafted by hand so loved and admired by the international market?

First, I couldn't believe it. I thought people were only buying machine-made gold jewellery these days. It's a wonderful feeling to know our work is appreciated worldwide. The idea of people wearing pieces I made and them being showcased in international markets fills me with happiness. It's incredibly rewarding. I am so proud of our organization, Turquoise Mountain, and our collective efforts that have brought recognition and respect to the artisans and their skills.

Myanmar Artisan Tin Win

What does working with your hands mean to you? 

In Myanmar, making gold jewellery by hand is considered an art, like painting or dancing. It's because our hands need to be so agile. Transforming a nugget of gold into flowers, little animal figures, trees, waves, stars, moons, vegetables, shells, and so many other things by hand is like magic. I feel like I'm conjuring things with my hands, and it is always exciting. 
Creating, using my hands, and bringing an idea to life is a fulfilling experience. Creating jewellery is more than just a job; it's a way for me to express my creativity and passion for the art of goldsmithing.

Myanmar Artisan Tin Win