On a steamy afternoon in Siem Reap, monsoon raindrops pound the tin roof of a cool, clinically clean workshop, where the next generation of Khmer jewellers is hard at work. Young artisans examine their pieces carefully, making tiny adjustments, firing up blowtorches as they manipulate metals – including gleaming spent-bullet brass, all too common in the once war-torn nation.
Watching over their efforts is British-born jeweller Madeline Green, who founded Ammo jewellery in Siem Reap in 2013. At Ammo, jewellers train for six months before taking up a stool in the workshop, the epicentre of Cambodia’s jewellery renaissance that bridges the gulf between traditional Khmer jewellery and today’s contemporary styles.
Green first visited Siem Reap as part of a holiday across Asia, keen to discover what had become of Cambodia after its years of violence under the Khmer Rouge. ‘When I arrived in Siem Reap, I soon realised how much I had underestimated the country,’ she says. ‘I saw so much life and vitality and so many artistic communities that I knew I had found a very special place.’
With Cambodia’s rich and often turbulent history, the country’s contemporary jewellers have a wealth of tradition and heritage to tap into. And nowhere is this more evident than Siem Reap, home to the UNESCO-listed Angkor Wat temple complex, once the spiritual heartland of an empire that reached, at its zenith, from China to the Malay Peninsula and was renowned for its immense wealth, intricate architecture and aesthetic achievements. The religious jewellery of Angkor, from intricate bracelets to elaborate headpieces worn by priests and royalty, played a fundamental role in the ancient ceremonies that took place in its stone shrines.
Today, jewellery artisans have a chance to delve into the rich legacy of their ancestors. ‘A large portion of ancient Khmer jewellery has been lost during the conflicts of the past, and there are limited resources for research,’ says Green, as we tour her workshop, her charges occasionally looking up from their work with shy smiles. ‘Luckily many traditions have been kept alive by a skilled minority of native Cambodians, who have passed them down through the generations. Now many amazing Khmer jewellers use very intricate patterns and forming techniques much the same way as it would have been done back in the Angkorian era to create wonderfully decorative jewellery.’
Yet Ammo’s collections are unashamedly contemporary. Elements of the old jewellery traditions are laced into pieces that would be at home on New York’s Fifth Avenue or in the luxury malls of Hong Kong. Green’s newest collection, in silver and brass, is inspired by the floor plans of Angkor, Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. ‘Working with a Khmer archaeologist, we designed a collection that references the superb geometry of Angkorian design. And working with local dealers, we have incorporated semiprecious stones such as garnet, peridot and natural zircon.’
Priests of a bygone era might have recognised the traditional lines found in Cambodia’s contemporary jewellery collections, but they wouldn’t recognise the materials used: many of today’s Cambodian jewellers incorporate metals of war including bullet casings, brass artillery shells and landmine shrapnel. Ammo uses blank cartridges that have been fired.
Chantha Thoeun, who was orphaned at eight years old when a Khmer Rouge soldier killed his father, learned jewellery making at an orphanage and managed to save enough to study graphic design. His brand Angkor Bullet Jewellery produces pieces using bullets and materials from neutralised bombs.
‘I use bullet casings and bomb shells as I want to showcase the plight of Khmer people and what they have had to endure in our recent past,’ says Chantha. ‘I believe it is a strong statement about my country and what the Khmer people can do, and expresses hope rising from tragic circumstances. We are turning something negative, used to kill millions of Khmer people, including my dad, into something of beauty, hope, strength and endurance. From war to peace.’
NGOs have played a vital role in the Khmer jewellery renaissance. Social enterprises like Saomao, which makes elaborate brass collar necklaces and other jewellery, and Rajana, a crafts training institute, have helped forge the path for many grass roots jewellery brands.
‘With the help and support of NGOs, there are many others like me who have learnt new skills that also help the environment by recycling or upcycling waste materials found in landfills,’ says Chantha. ‘But if our business is to grow we must develop all the skills necessary to run a business, and this is where we can learn from expat mentors. NGOs have also assisted artists like me to expand markets beyond our own country.’
Ly Pisith designed high-end spectacles in Paris for the likes of Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck before returning to Cambodia in 2008. Now he creates luxury silver jewellery with semiprecious stones and even sandstone for his brand Garden of Desire.
‘Angkor has such a rich past of arts and culture – history and culture is in our backyard,’ says Pisith. ‘The temples and their details are magnificent. I soaked up all that [when I returned], as well as the people and surroundings.’
He says Cambodian artisans are increasingly tapping into their natural surroundings for inspiration as a counterpoint to the country’s dark past. ‘I don’t just tell beautiful stories with my work, but I also tell of the past of this country, my past and future here. We still have quite a long way to catch up, but I hope that we will all get there together.’
Cathay Dragon files to Siem Reap from Hong Kong four times a week.