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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.