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Former child beggar Srey Nao Thorn is making a career out of turning pieces of brass into jewellery. Sam walker
Former child beggar Srey Nao Thorn is making a career out of turning pieces of brass into jewellery. Sam walker

A life transformed, like scrap metal into jewellery

Srey Nao Thorn bends over a small wooden desk, a blowtorch in hand, as she concentrates on transforming tiny pieces of brass into jewellery.

The 20-year-old former child beggar has come a long way in the decade since she joined the Green Gecko Project, a Siem-Reap organisation that supports street kids.

But it was a broken heart a few years ago that put her on a path to learning a new skill, gaining employment and launching her own jewellery design label.

The reason she became a jewellery designer was “an embarrassing story”, she said.

“My boyfriend had just ended our relationship, and I was so sad, I wanted to run away to the arts school in Battambang to get away from him,” she said.

Her “Gecko mum”, Green Gecko co-founder Tania Palmer, took her to an exhibition of jewellery made from old ammunition to cheer her up.

“That exhibition was a jewellery launch by Madeline Green and Ammo and it was the night that changed my life,” Thorn said.

Palmer has watched Thorn flourish, from when she was a small child begging on the streets to see her emerge as an artist and businesswoman.

“On the evening of the Ammo launch, Srey Nao turned to me and said: ‘Mum, how can something so beautiful come from something so bad?’” Palmer said.

After being inspired by the Ammo exhibition, Thorn was given the opportunity to join the Ammo team and study under Green.

It has taken her about a year to learn the art of jewellery design.

She now mostly works with brass but is starting to branch out and learn more about working with silver.

But, she said, starting her own label, Tokkae Design, came with many challenges.

“I found it difficult to be creative when I had some stress in my life, like when I fight with my ma [birth mother] at home and I worry about my family,” she said.

Despite these difficulties, she launched her design with an exhibition of works in July.

And she hasn’t forgotten those who helped her succeed, with 10 per cent of every jewellery sale donated to Gecko Action, an arm of Green Gecko dedicated to helping poor families.

Sam Walker

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