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Turning destructive items into beauty

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Thoeun Chantha shows off some of the material he uses to make jewellery. Heng Chivoan

Turning destructive items into beauty

Lotuses, the Tree of Life, leafs, doves – these have been popular designs for jewellery from time immemorial. At Angkor Bullet Jewellery they prove to be big sellers as well. However, the material used may turn some heads.

Thoeun Chantha, who founded Angkor Bullet Jewellery, lost loved ones, including his parents, through the ravages of war in the days of the Khmer Rouge. After their passing, he had to learn at a very young age to care for himself.

To cope with his loss, he used the very objects that took his loved ones away to create beautiful pieces of jewellery and ornaments.

Chantha realises that using diffused bombshells and spent bullets in his creations may make some people uneasy.

“It does not mean I want to see a lot of shooting in order to collect the bullet shells to make jewellery. I know that guns killed my father and separated my family,” Chantha says.

Recalling the death of his father, who died on the battlefield fighting for the fledgling government army fighting off the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Chantha says: “At that time I was too young, I did not know the meaning of death. When someone told me that my father had died, I still did not understand.”

With no parent to look after him – his mother had died a few years earlier of malnutrition in the Khmer Rouge hotspot of Pursat province – he went to live with his grandfather until he was old enough in the early 1990s to become a jewellery-making apprentice for an NGO, SKIP. After four years, he left SKIP to become a jeweller for another organisation.

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An artisan works on a bracelet made from spent bullet shells. Heng Chivoan

As the price of silver increased in the early 2000s, the organisation struggled to keep itself afloat. So when he remembered the time a customer brought in a bombshell as a decorative item, he felt he had found a great solution.

“At that time, I diffused shells and showed them to the management, explaining that they can be used instead of silver,” Chantha says.

The father of two says: “I used bullet shells from a gun and large bombshells to show to foreigners to help them understand the difficulties the Cambodian people have faced. I believe the products are reminders of the unfortunate experiences of my country and people, and what we can achieve now. I take ammunition that has killed millions of Cambodians and transform them into objects that represent beauty, hope, energy and strength.”

After saving up money, in 2011, Chantha left the organisation to start his own business.

With a small budget to buy some materials and help from friends to buy some important items, his small team of craftsmen and apprentices can now produce 100 to 300 items a day.

For some customers, Chantha admits, looking at the jewellery could take them aback.

“At first, Japanese tourists were concerned when we showed them the bullet-made jewellery, because Japan also deals with the aftermath of war. But when we explained the reasons we used such items in our creations, they appreciated the fact and bought some pieces as souvenirs to take back to their home country,” he says.

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