Just an hour south of Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi sit several small villages known across the world for their unique artisan crafts. One particular village, Thuy Ung, has a legacy of making handcrafted goods from animal horns for more than 400 years. As you walk down the streets in Thuy Ung, it’s easy to spot large piles of buffalo horn tubes in the front yards of villagers’ homes, waiting to be turned into salad forks, spoons, bowls, combs, and pieces of jewelry.
Jessica Phan, the founder of the brand Hathorway, recalls when she first discovered buffalo horn houseware items in Vietnam’s markets while visiting her family in 2015. Phan, initially off-put by the buffalo horn items, assumed buffaloes were killed for their horns. Curious, Phan asked the buffalo horn sellers and artisans in Thuy Ung’s horn market about how the materials were sourced.
What Phan learned surprised her: a deep connection and age-old relationship between the buffalo, a symbol of sustaining life for the people of Vietnam, and the Vietnamese culture.
Sourcing Horn in Vietnam
The buffalo plays an important role in Vietnam, specifically in the economy and throughout its history. Buffalo have always worked alongside the Vietnamese people — pulling plows in the rice fields, carrying crops and heavy loads of goods and providing a source of food and nutrition.
When a buffalo is slaughtered, it provides meat for food, and its hide is tanned and turned into leather for shoes, belts, and accessories. Unlike rhino horns and elephant tusks which are intentionally cut from the animal, buffalo horns are a deadstock byproduct of the food and agricultural industry. The intact, hollow buffalo horns are set aside, ready to be turned into one of many sustainable, low waste products.
The artform and craft of buffalo horn carving dates back more than 400 years, and is viewed in Vietnamese culture as a deep sign of respect for the buffalo, ensuring that no part of the animal is ever wasted when its life cycle has concluded.
Hand Crafted Jewelry
Traditional horn carving is an organic and chemical free process. Artisans use hot oil to soften the hollow horns to make them more pliable. Once softened, the horns are cut down the middle and flattened into plates, which are then ready to be carved into intricate designs or pressed and shaped into objects like jewelry. When small pieces of jewelry are cut from the horn plates, the leftover pieces are used to create horn dust and horn powder that are then made into fertilizer.
Once cut, each piece is then shined and polished with a technique known as water polishing. Water polishing brings out the unique color, texture and striations of every horn’s natural beauty, and excludes the use of toxic ethanol, sealants or primers found in chemical polishing. Once shined, each horn’s unique color, design, and lustor is illuminated in every one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry.
Hathorway’s Twist to Horn Jewelry
Phan was instantly drawn to the sleek and durable material with its variations in color, but had a hard time finding jewelry that fit her style. After purchasing a few different pieces of horn and bringing them back to the United States, Phan began working with the horn herself to create unique pieces of jewelry. Phan’s background in graphic design inspired her to create jewelry with clean lines, geometric shapes, and edgy silhouettes that celebrate each unique piece of horn she encountered.
In February 2018, Phan left her career in tech to grow Hathorway, a women-owned and women-run business. Preserving the traditional craftsmanship gave Phan the opportunity to reconnect with her Vietnamese culture while also allowing her to pursue her childhood dream to work in fashion. Hathorway continues the tradition by partnering with an artisan family in Thuy Ung to create their own unique pieces carved from buffalo horn. Emphasizing responsible sourcing and sustainable fashion, Hathorway works with suppliers who provide their makers with fair wages and safe working conditions. By selecting materials and using processes with preservation in mind, each piece of jewelry is intentionally designed.
Vietnamese horn jewelry is a great example of why knowing the story behind the product is so important. It’s easy to assume that buffalo horns are sourced in a similar fashion to elephant tusks and rhino horns, but that cannot be further from the truth. Learning more about the eco-friendly process of creating horn jewelry and the zero-waste values associated with its production leads to a more informed purchase.