For Siem Reap designer Prak Rotana, the inspiration to create jewellery has always been all around her. When Prak was a child, her mother - a fashion designer in the 1960s - used to purchase small gemstones from vendors who, carrying baskets of stones on their heads, would knock at her door. Unbeknownst to her at the time, these stones would be the beginning of Rotana’s collection years later.
More recently, Rotana befriended a local historian at the National Museum of Cambodia who introduced her to the now-closed Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, which published work relating to jewellery, silver, gold and the tools used for the craft. After meeting some of the artists and students at the institute, she began sketching her own designs.
“Someone said to me, ‘You have so many ideas, just do something!” Rotana says. “Make jewellery to give to the gods.”
She began her journey in 2010, working with a purple amethyst her sister had given to her, turning it into a ring after four months of work. From that difficult beginning, she now works closely with members of her family in the jewellery business.
“There is a big cost benefit to working with family and a lot less risk,” she explains.
She also works with local artisans at the Psar Leur and Psar Chas markets. With the support of her friends and their network, she found investors for custom pieces to get her started and from there word has spread.
Rotana’s style is a fusion of classic and modern. She says that she studies the styles of jewellery depicted in Cambodia’s temples, as well as how people wore jewellery in the Angkorian period, then adapts those styles to a modern aesthetic.
Cambodia’s jewellery industry today is saturated, but custom designers are rare. Most jewellers use 3D-printing techniques to mass produce their designs.
For Rotana, however, one design is one item. She consults with her clients about the stones and designs, and each piece is a single edition. That individuality, imperfections and all, is the cornerstone of her business.
For now, Rotana is focusing on Cambodian stones – especially blue sapphires and rock crystals. She is also slowly collecting different varieties of jade from Myanmar, where she travelled as an almost broke student. “[Jade] is so beautiful,” she says. “Especially the white jade, [because] it has silver artefacts inside it.”
Although her operation remains small, Rotana has ambitious goals. “My biggest dream is to offer something to the King,” she says. “But I need to generate a lot more money first!”
Reporting by Sarah Rhodes