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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Centuries-old craft coming slowly back to life

Centuries-old craft coming slowly back to life

I n Cambodia the beauty and value of silver has been appreciated for over a

thousand years. Used for ornaments, jewelry and coins, it reached its height

during the 11th century Angkor empire, when Khmer silversmiths attained a

perfection that they never surpassed in succeeding centuries. The decline seemed

irreversible after the devastation of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, but the

tradition was never completely eradicated.

Today it is being revived and

trade is brisk in Phnom Penh's Russian market on 182 street. Most silverware is

new, but pieces are thirty or forty years old. There are few genuine antiques,

claims Madame Hou Hout, from her stall number 323, as old silver is often melted

down and reworked.

She sells an array of objects, from Buddhas to

funerary jars, chopsticks to jewelry, including tiny ankle chains ('chean

Krahng') for babies. Not all are beautiful. Some are garish, but others, such as

knives and forks, are elegant. Certain objects are covered in ornate filigree

work, reflecting the traditions of Islamic silversmiths.

These

silversmiths predominate in the Cham communities of Cambodia which are Muslim.

There are about 100,000 Cham-Malays descended from the artistic royal kingdom of

Champa. They were badly persecuted during the Pol Pot regime, when their

population was halved, and they now live along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers,

about 35 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, where fishing is their other main

activity.

There are several villages around Prek Kdam, facing the Tonle

Sap. In simple, open-air workshops, underneath their wooden houses, their hammer

and bend the precious white metal with their old instruments. They work with

Laotian silver, which is 70 percent pure, and comes in little balls, selling

pieces at U.S. $120 a kilo, but the prices are higher in the city, where

bargaining is essential.

They can produce made-to-measure pieces in a few

days and, like many skilled craftsmen in Cambodia. Can copy anything. Their

finest pieces can be found in Madame Khen Song's well-stocked shop at 99

Monivong Boulevard, where she has numerous beautiful belts, consisting of

plaited strands of silver, that would enhance any outfit.

The silver from

Laos comes over the border illegally, but most comes from China. It varies in

purity between 50-100 percent, with many decorative items being 90 percent, and

in the city objects sell at about U.S. $26 per 100 grams. On the international

market, precious metals are sold by troy ounces, one equals 31.1 grams, and the

current price is U.S. $4.50. The Egyptians set its value, in 3600 BC, at two

fifths that of gold. It costs one twentieth as much as gold, and one fiftieth as

much as platinum.

Pure silver is soft and hardened by alloying, usually

with copper, as in sterling silver, which has a minimum of 92.5 percent silver.

Its malleability makes it easy to work, and it has been found in ancient tombs,

unaffected by air and age, although it tarnishes in certain environments. It is

the whitest of all metals - its Latin name, argentum, means white and shining -

and when polished has a brilliant luster; 95 percent of the light striking its

surface is reflected. Cambodian silversmiths lack the chemicals needed to polish

it to the high sheen found in countries such as Thailand.

The silver

Pagoda, within the Royal Palace, has a silver floor, made of 5,000 tiles

weighing 1.1 kilo each, making a total of 5,809 kilos. Made in 1903, it was

miraculously untouched by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Among the other fabulous

on view are many antique silver betel-nut boxes, for storing the paraphernalia

of the betel-nut ritual, given as gifts to the King, similar in tradition to

English snuff boxes.

Much copied and popular today, they are made in a

variety of animal motifs, both real and mythical, and include elephants waving

their trunks, pigs with large ears, cats with big eyes, rabbits, ducks, deer and

citrus fruits. They vary in size and open around the middle so that betel-nut,

or nowadays tobacco or pills, can be placed in the center. Before the war, when

lotteries were held, the prize was often one of these boxes.

During the

French protectorate silverwork, prized by the French, was encouraged, and many

designs originated in the royal workshops beside the Royal Palace and School of

Fine Arts, some of which still exist today.

One of the great master

silversmiths who taught at the School of Fine Arts is Professor Sum Samay, now

71 and officially retired. His studio is hidden behind a sign announcing

Indochina Crocodile Import Export and, indistinctly unreptilian fashion, is

still a frenzy of activity. Eight students, two girls and six boys, help while

he continues to create masterpieces. He was laboring painstakingly over the

gold-plated silver crown that graced Hak Srei Moum's head in the Miss Cambodia

Beauty Contest in November. "I have only two days to make it," he said,

hammering and chiseling away.

Sum Samay, a son of king Sisowath, was

encouraged by king Monivong (who succeeded the throne in 1928) to become a

silversmith in the royal workshops, and received his diploma in 1942. He has a

fragile old album of photographs showing exquisite pieces, many with motifs

inspired by Angkor Wat, he made for royalty and the military during his early

career, together with jewelry, art deco tea-services, perfume bottles,

hairbrushes and combs, mirrors, boxes of cutlery, cigarette cases and many

gorgeous objects he sold through Les Corporations Cambogiennes to France. He won

international prizes and his work was displayed in the National Museum,

subsequently stolen during the Pol Pot regime.

From that tragic era, Sum

Samay was the sole professor in the school to survive. He escaped and did forced

labor in Pursat, but lost a daughter. In 1979 it took him twenty-eight days,

without food, to walk back to Phnom Penh, and a photograph taken later shows him

thin and gaunt, but working at the school again.

Sum Samay's desire is to

see silverwork flourish anew and to pass on his skills. Three of his twelve

children have become silversmiths. "I want to carry on working for Cambodia," he

said, "even though I am old and tired."

While collectors are unlikely to

discover pieces by this craftsmen in Cambodia, they can find silver coins,

called piastres de commerce, made between 1850-1950. Madame Hou Hout had

several, inscribed with Republique Française, dated 1903. Alloyed with copper,

they were 90 percent pure and weighed 27 grams. By the early 1970s most

countries had eliminated silver from their coins, the United States being the

last nation to do so. Madame Hou Hout also has bronze Buddhas from China,

covered with silver-plate made from Paktong, a Chinese alloy of nickel, zinc and

copper.

Collectors will not find hall-marking here. The practice came

from Goldsmiths Hall, London, where gold and silver articles were stamped.

Cambodian artisans sometimes use their own trademark. One in Siem Reap uses an

Apsara's head as his sign. Otherwise, only the percentage of silver is stamped

on the bottom of the piece-caveat emptor.

But if you buy for aesthetic

reasons, silver improves with age and, besides, it will be an enduring memento

of a country reestablishing the artistic traditions it nearly lost.

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