Surrounded by the odour of raw meats, fresh vegetables and the din of crowds forcefully bargaining prices with vendors, Dus Vichet, a veteran jeweller inside the Russian Market, is sitting patiently at his wooden desk and etching a gold ring.
This patient and focused man has occupied the same building for almost a decade, working as a jeweller in a tiny open-air shopfront. “I never have any regrets about dropping out of school and landing this job,” Vichet says.
When he was younger, every day after school the lifelong Phnom Penh resident would drop by his brother-in-law’s jewellery store in the market and slowly absorbed what he called “additional skills.” Never taking his eyes off his brother’s hand, Vichet kept asking questions about the trade until he built up his understanding.
“It surprised me at first, how quick I learned how to do this job, but then I realised that I was meant to do this,” he says.
Seeing the potential of the business, and having gathered the self-confidence required to do the job, Vichet decided to steer his interest away from formal education and into the skills his brother-in-law taught him.
Every day of the week, Vichet comes to his store in the morning and sits himself at his desk, either waiting for customer orders or working on unfinished pieces. “It takes two days at most to finish a pair of earrings,” he says. “My customers would show me the style from a catalogue or one of my samples and ask me if I can imitate or innovate something similar for them.”
If customers are unsure what they want or lack experience in ordering jewellery, Vichet takes it upon himself to choose a fine diamond or gem, which requires another important aesthetic skill. “All of the elements in jewellery play the same essential role – beautifying,” he explains. “If the gem is not crystal clear, it doesn’t shine, making a piece of jewellery look fake.”
Cambodian tastes for jewellery has gradually evolved over time. Khmer superstition proclaims that diamond rings hold a kind of superpower, protecting its wearer from witch curses; the bigger the diamond, the safer the owner.
The current dictates of local fashion place importance on matching outfits with jewellery of the same colour. Unsurprisingly, Vichet has found these trends beneficial to his business.
“This trend is what makes my customer order not just one item, but a set of jewellery including a ring, bracelet, necklace and earrings.” He pauses before adding with a bright smile: “The price goes up accordingly, too.”
The income Vichet earns from his work might be impressive, but stress and frustration go hand in hand with the trade.
“Doing this job can be very stressful,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sit there for hours to make the diamond or gem fit in the jewellery right. If you press too hard, it will be broken. It takes a lot of attention and patience to succeed in this career, I guess.”
Another challenge for Vichet is the location of the store, which is less than ideal for his purposes. At midday, the space around his desk is boiling hot under the rays of the sun shining through the thin zinc roof above.
“My shop is not like that of a seller who owns a house with air conditioning, who can produce work to sell for thousands of dollars. Anyway, this is the life of jewellery maker.”
Landing a job like this would be the last thing most people would wish for – the heat of the afternoon sun, the unpleasant smells of the welding equipment striking silver, ears numb from the throb of people rushing by each day like a swarm of bees.
None of this deters Vichet, who takes immense pride in today’s income sustaining tomorrow’s business. Asked to summarise his daily life, the jeweller responds: “passion in profession.”