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The royal sword was also lost during the Lon Nol period. Photo supplied
The royal sword was also lost during the Lon Nol period. Photo supplied

Trailing the King’s forgotten crown jewels

A Czech jewellry designer hopes she has minted a new crown for the King and is digging into the story of Cambodia's missing royal regalia along the way

Victoria Beldova was a student at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design when she decided she would make a new crown for the Cambodian king, Norodom Sihamoni. The 27-year-old artist saw the design as a continuation of her family legacy. Beldova is descended from a long line of jewellery makers charged with guarding the crown jewels of the Bohemian monarchy, which was dissolved in 1918.

Her father and grandfather come from the small town of Turnov, which is known for its gem craftsmanship, and made official replicas for the Czech government on three separate occasions. First, Beldova needed to find a royal head. “I was speaking with some friends, also artists and designers, and one friend wanted to know who I’d make the crown for,” she says. “I said I didn’t know, for some king probably.”

Beldova’s friend suggested she make the crown for someone who had once lived in the Czech Republic: King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, who was sent to study in Prague at the age of nine. So she began to research.

Beldova learned that Sihamoni had been sworn in without a crown. It had disappeared in 1970, after Lon Nol took power in a coup against then-Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk, who was previously king.

According to Julio A Jeldres, the royal family’s official biographer, all of the royal regalia, including a sword, footwear, and a collar worn during coronations, vanished at the same time. The last time the crown was worn was during Sihanouk’s first coronation, in 1941.

Jeldres has tried to get to the bottom of the jewels’ disappearance. “They all disappeared. Some items of the royal regalia have been reproduced and are used sometimes at the ceremonies in the Royal Palace, but they do not have the same value of the ancient ones that were stolen,” he explains.

“I interviewed many people. Some blamed Lon Nol, others [blamed] the Khmer Rouge, and some even [blamed] the Vietnamese. I think that in all probability, the crown jewels were stolen during [the] Lon Nol period and dismantled, with the stones sold individually,” he says.

The original crown – known as Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory – was a multi-tiered, cone-shaped cap made of solid gold and precious gems meant to symbolise the sacred mountain Mount Meru. It was passed down from king to king from the time of the Khmer empire.

King Norodom wears the lost crown in this 1866 photograph taken by John Thomson. Photo supplied
King Norodom wears the lost crown in this 1866 photograph taken by John Thomson. Photo supplied

The crown resembled its Thai counterpart, and according to historian Milton Osborne, it landed in the temporary possession of Thai rulers during the 19th century. When the French established a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863, the Siamese ruler kept the royal regalia in Bangkok to symbolise his role as Cambodia’s suzerain, he says.

Images of the crown can still be found in bas reliefs in the Angkor Wat temple complex, but an official replica was never made. In September 1993, just before the monarchy was reinstated and the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk “crowned” for the second time, he sent a telegram to Prime Ministers Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen from China, where he was receiving medical treatment.

He asked that the government not make a new crown, so that the money could be better spent meeting the needs of the Cambodian people, Jeldres says. And so neither he nor his son would wear a crown. When Beldova returned from her first visit to Cambodia, she contacted the Czech Embassy in Bangkok for assistance getting in touch with the Cambodian royal family.

The Czech chargé d’affaires in Phnom Penh, Jana Gasparikova, knew of Beldova’s father’s reputation in Turnov. “She told me she wouldn’t have replied to my email if she hadn’t known Turnov and my father’s name,” Beldova says. “But she did, and she tried to send a few letters to the Royal Palace.”

The Czech overtures were ignored. But just as Beldova was about to give up hope, her luck seemed to change. Gasparikova was invited to a banquet at the Royal Palace, where she was given the details of someone who claimed to be the King’s cousin. Beldova began a correspondence with the man.

“His daughter is my age and she wants to study in the Czech Republic, so there were lots of coincidences,” Beldova says. “He wrote to me and asked if I could come [to Phnom Penh].” In April 2015, Beldova got on a plane to Cambodia for the second time. She stayed a week, and met the man every day to discuss the design, she says. She didn’t know if her efforts would reach the King.

Contacted by Post Weekend, the man – a historian – asked that his name and family history not be revealed. When pressed on the specifics of his heritage, his answers grew increasingly vague. It could not be verified if the man is related to King Sihamoni, though Jeldres said his surname does not match that of the King’s cousins.

Beldova’s modern design has Cambodian inspiration, she says. Photo supplied
Beldova’s modern design has Cambodian inspiration, she says. Photo supplied

Regardless of his identity, Beldova says the man was extremely helpful during her visit, and that he shared insights into Khmer symbolism. He recommended that she look at archives of coronation celebrations from the 19th and 20th centuries for inspiration.

He did not, however, secure her an audience with the King. Upon returning to the Czech Republic, Beldova began to change the designs once more. “At first, I wanted to do something more traditional for Cambodia, but then I thought it would be better to do it my way, so that it doesn’t look like a copy of something,” she says.

In her new design, Beldova has eschewed traditional depictions of Khmer legends, choosing a simple design with gold leaves emerging from the crown’s band. The final product is a European-style crown inspired by the landscapes and nature of Cambodia, she says.

“I used stuff that was stuck in my head after I came back: the temple of Angkor Wat, the water and rivers, and the water lily,” Beldova explains. Today, Beldova says she would still like to give the crown to the King, but she doesn’t have much hope that her designs will catch his attention. She’s been trying to contact him for two years without success.

The crown will reach a different audience: her exhibition of the designs will open in Prague this month. For now, Beldova is satisfied. “I’ve been twice [to] Cambodia, and everywhere you look, there is stuff that inspires you to do something,” she says.

“I wanted to use my Cambodian experience to do something more.”

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