Story & Photos: Pham Hoai Thanh

The Chu Ru people of the Central Highlands create ornate wedding rings using ancient techniques and inspired artistry.

The Chu Ru people of Lam Dong province, in the Central Highlands, are a matriarchal society in which women “catch” their husbands. In their wedding rituals, silver rings are presented to the groom’s family; when a young woman is courting a young man, she orders a pair of male and female rings, called sri and sră. A Chu Ru proposal is characterized by these two most sacred tokens of love.

There are two key ingredients used for the creation of the rings, silver and beeswax for crafting the ring’s core. The last remaining Chu Ru ringmakers, Ma Wel and Ya Thuat demonstrated the process to me. First, Ma Wel dipped cylindrical wooden molds into a layer of wax around 1mm thick. Then,  after dipping wax-coated cylinder in water, she removed a slender wax tube that she cut lengthwise and plaited into small threads.

Her partner Ya Tuat chiseled sharp blocks of patterns with a small dagger and trimmed and tapered soft edges with his nails and fingertips. All decorative patterns were made manually, and the small threads plaited by Ma Wel were put into use. They were either wrapped into tiny loops stuck on rings, or twisted together to make braided patterns. The ringmaker’s imagination dictates the eventual shape of rings. Some patterns are universal, but there are never two totally identical rings.

To complete the wax ring mold, a wax butt is attached and wrapped with a pandan leaf into a small funnel which is eventually used to pour silver into the mold. Ya Tuat explained that the dung of a 3-year-old male buffalo had to be mixed with clay collected only by him to withstand the baking process without leaving cracks or holes. The ring core is then dipped into this unusual material, and dried to make the mold complete.

According to Ya Tuat, the night before the casting of rings, spouses must abstain from intercourse. Belief dictates that rings are only cast in the morning, and if it rains or there is lightning, the ringmakers believe the mold will crack. It sounded like a superstition, but when Ma Wel cast rings in the afternoon in front of me at my request, lightning flashed across the sky and the terracotta pot used to melt silver exploded right before us.

Silver melting requires the burned charcoal of Kasiu timber. The melting pot is made of buffalo’s dung mixed with clay while the mold is buried in a flaming brazier. Ma Wel gazed into the flame; the red of the mold and shimmering glaze of the silver pointed out that the mold was heated enough. She picked the mold out, turned it upside down to pour beeswax until it was totally empty and placed it into the charcoal again. Ma Wel cautiously picked up the glistening silver pot and poured it into the funnel. She left it for several minutes to ensure silver permeated every single detail and picked the mold out again.

She then gently dipped the mold in the water several times until the mold no longer glowed red and dunked it into cold water, which crumbled the mold and gave rise to a pair of rings. Ma Wel rubbed all residual mold cover pieces with an iron rod and cut off the butt, took a look at the pair of charcoal-stained rings and continued to make other molds.

After molding, she attached the rings onto a pandan thread and dropped then into a pot of boiling locusts. When Ma Wel pulled up the thread, the rings shone. She rubbed them again with soap and a brush and the rings glinted more spectacularly. The last step was to put rings into a pipe filled with small iron balls and shake to make the rings even more lustrous. The silver rings were then ready to help Chu Ru newlyweds tie the knot, as they have been doing for generations.

The Chu Ru population is roughly 15,000, mainly concentrated in Lam Vien Highland, Don Duong Province, Lam Dong. Chu Ru in Malayo-Polynesian means “seeking land.” They emerged from the Champa empire of the Central Coast. In the 17th century, the empire collapsed and Cham communities migrated to the highlands to survive. They retained brought their artistry and crafts and renamed themselves.