Perhaps the most recognizable piece of jewelry worn by the Sami, the Indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, Finland and western Russia, is a round brooch known among many Sami as the risku. A circular badge surrounded by a series of small decorative discs, it has been worn for centuries by Sami men and women as a fastening for shawls and scarves. And it embodies the close relationship between the Sami and silver that dates to the Middle Ages.
‘Close to My Heart’
When she isn’t herding reindeer in the fells of northern Sweden, Erica Huuva makes jewelry that celebrates her Sami heritage. She first fell in love with jewelry making in 2003 while on a two-year crafting course, introduced her brand in 2006 and now has two studios that produce her work. Ms. Huuva, 40, has earned acclaim for pieces that are sleek and modern yet incorporate some of the ancient design motifs found in early Sami jewelry and handicrafts. “The making of traditional risku brooches lies very close to my heart,” Ms. Huuva wrote in an email. “As a wearer, when you carry the risku brooch on your chest, it is also a sign and a way to proudly carry your culture.”
The risku can be worn as everyday jewelry, but it usually is an accessory to Sami dress on special occasions. It also plays a role in the traditional Sami wedding ceremony: A bride may wear several brooches borrowed from family members or even rented from a local jeweler because folklore holds that silver shields its wearers from evil spirits while also attracting abundance and good luck. According to the Sami Museum and Nature Center Siida in northern Finland, risku are often inherited or given as christening or confirmation gifts. They can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand euros, depending on their size and materials.
Historians believe the brooch’s design depicts the sun crossing the nightless summer sky above Sapmi, the Sami cultural territory that stretches from the fjords and mountains of northern Norway to the marshes and lake-dotted plains of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. (Today, some of the approximately 80,000 Sami live in the territory.) Exactly when the risku first appeared in its current form is not known, but historians at the University of Oulu in Finland believe it evolved from oval brooches crafted in prehistoric times from reindeer horn, which often displayed carved symbols of the sun.
Silver and the Sami
It is unclear when silver first entered Sami communities, but archaeological findings suggest it appeared in the early Middle Ages through trade, mostly along the coasts of Norway. Its presence increased with the development of the Hanseatic commercial trade network, through which Sami reindeer trappers traded meat and hides for silver and silver jewelry from Europe.
In the latter Middle Ages, as the reindeer population dwindled, the Sami began to domesticate and herd the animals to maintain their livelihood. The advance brought more wealth to the communities, and silver became a symbol of prosperity and even a form of currency. Over time, the Sami became skilled silversmiths, and crafting jewelry from silver joined a longstanding tradition of handicraft known in the Northern Sami language as duodji.
A new generation of young Sami, including Ms. Huuva, produce riskus featuring modern adornments like colored gems and crystals. Carved reindeer horn and other local materials are used by others, like the Finnish silversmith Sami Laiti, son of the well-known Sami artist and craftsman Petteri Laiti. Elle Valkeapaa, another Finnish artisan, embellishes her risku pieces with a traditional birch-root wrapping technique that has become her signature.