Precious metals and gemstones do not feature in Siem Reap designer Rany Som’s gleaming jewellery collection – instead, she uses over twenty different kinds of seeds found growing locally to create delicate, intricate necklaces, bracelets and much more, recently branching out into clothing and home-ware.
Som founded her company, Graines de Cambodge, in 2011 after returning to Siem Reap after living in India for four years with her ex-husband. She always had an artistic streak and loved being creative but, as the oldest of seven children, had never had the opportunity to go to art school or study design.
On her return to Cambodia, times were tough for Som as her parents disapproved of her divorce and did not welcome her back into the family home. She moved out of the house, but struggled to find work.
“One day I was driving my motorbike and I was so sad in my life, so lonely. I saw some seeds on the road so I stopped and collected them,” she says.
Som thought they were pretty and immediately saw potential in the small, colourful seeds. She thought perhaps she could thread them together to create some kind of jewellery, but initially struggled to put her ideas into practice.
“I had no idea how to make a hole, so I borrowed a drill from a neighbor,” she says. “The seeds were very hard and I cut my hand. I couldn’t do it so I paid a guy but he only worked for me for one day. He said it was very hard, that it was a girl’s job, and didn’t want to do it.”
Reluctant to give up, Som persevered and slowly worked out how to drill the tiny holes, eventually producing a pair of ear-rings.
Som gradually built up a modest jewellery collection and started showing her work to friends at her birthday party. They were impressed and urged her to make more.
Now Som has a staff of seven girls who hand make the products at her small workshop and showroom behind Wat Damnak, which is surrounded by trees producing many of her seeds, such as the tiny white ‘Mary’s Tears’ and the brilliant red ‘jambie’ seed.
She designs all the jewellery herself including large statement-piece necklaces worthy of the red carpet, and long pendants made of smooth brown lotus seeds – Som’s favourite. In keeping with their botanical nature, they gleam with a rich gloss achieved not from varnish but being rubbed with coconut and lemongrass oil, which also gives them a pleasant aroma.
The selection of seeds is a painstaking process – each one has to be the perfect size, shape and symmetry to fit Som’s designs.
“At the beginning I went out and found the seeds myself,” Som says, “But now I go to the villages and they know what I want. They collect them for me.”
On the accessories side, Som produces small handbags and boxes made from the ‘flamboyant’ plant. She uses every part of the plant: the dry husk forms the main body, then it is studded with long, thin seeds while as a finishing touch, a shiny round lotus seed is used as a buckle. The intricate bags can take up to four days to make.
Som is quietly modest about her success. “It just started from word of mouth,” she says. “Then I started putting my jewellery in hotels.”
La Residence d’Angkor and concept store Wa Gallery at FCC Angkor now sell Som’s products, while the new boutique hotel in town Sala Lodges recently commissioned her to make seed-covered lampshades for the bathrooms.
There is also a Graines de Cambodge stall at the monthly Made in Cambodia market.
Som has sold jewellery to customers in Hong Kong and the US, and has plenty of ideas for the future.
“I would love to create something artistic,” she says. “One idea I have is to do something with rice husks, I want to make some art with that. In the future I would like to have a small piece of land in the countryside and to have a proper workshop with all my plants, so I can show people what I do.”