Their copper and silver sculptures are among the most well known in the country, like the statue of Supreme Patriach Chuon Nath, the royal tiered Chatra parasols, the Sakyamuni Stupa at Phnom Oudong hill, also known as Phnom Preah Reach Troap, and the logos of the Ministry of Interior and ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
These are all luxurious sculptures that feature amazing detail, but for all the popularity of their work, the public does not know the faces and names of the professional and skilled Soum family.
Smithing copper, silver and gold has been a family business for three generations of Soum Sira’s family, which now has 12 employees, all skilled craftsmen who learned from his father and grandfather.
Sira inherited the business from his father Soum Sinoeum, a former professor of sculpture who passed away in 2019 at the age of 58 after more than 30 years in the industry. His grandfather Soum Samay, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 88, was a descendant of the royal family during the reign of King Sisowath.
Having studied under his father from a young age, Sira, now 33, is as skilled as his father and grandfather before him.
Sira recounted the history of the business, explaining that his grandfather was the instigator of the Faculty of Visual Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA).
“He was previously an official at the Royal Palace, and was skilled in the fields of copper, silver and gold. At the request of students at the time, he established a workshop at the RUFA to teach sculpture in precious metals. Later, he asked the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to introduce a full visual arts department,” he said.
Sira’s father was former director of the library and professor of metal sculpture at the Fine Arts Secondary School.
Although the work is not well-marketed or particularly prominent, he does not complain about the living he makes.
“Supporting my family as a goldsmith is not a problem. We live decently enough, without any problems. Nowadays, we have almost no time to complete our work, as there are so many orders arriving. Most of our customers have dealt with the business since the time of my grandfather, and we have an excellent reputation. In particular, we receive orders from the top leaders of the country, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister [and Minister of Interior] Sar Kheng and senior officials from almost all institutions,” he said.
“Small sculptures take at least a week but on average, a month to [six weeks]. Some large pieces may take three of four months. Prices begin at around $800. We usually price by square metre, but it also depends on the level of detail the customer requires. If they need ornate flowers or replicas of complex things, we charge accordingly,” he added.
His grandfather was originally named Nol, or Prince Nol. He was born in 1923 and was the only son of King Sisowath and Princess Khieu Van Cheaneadka.
Later, his mother chose to live outside the palace and he studied at DUDA de Lacre and Wat Saravan Techo in Phnom Penh.
At the age of 14, he studied wood carving as one of the first students at the Fine Arts School, with George Groslier as school principal.
At the age of 18, it was time to take the diploma exam, but he did not have the documents required. His mother asked for the help of a man named Soum to register him for a birth certificate. He took the man’s name, with the given name Samay.
Soum Samay finished the exam in first place and was recognised by the French Governor-General of Indochina and awarded a medal. At the age of 20, he married Nov Nem. They went on to have 19 children, 13 boys and six girls.
Prior to the Khmer Rouge period, Samay held various positions in the state, including being chairman of the National Traditional Festival Commission, the Commemoration Ceremony, the Veal Preah Meru Commission, and the Sakyamuni Stupa Construction Committee in Gold and Silver. He was also vice-president of the Khmer Corporate Association and the National Heritage Inspection Commission.
After 1979, he became a professor at the RUFA’s Faculty of Visual Arts.
In addition, he was honoured by the king and awarded the title “Broser Hattha Chamnan” as the craftsman of the crown of His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni.
Although he passed away more than a decade ago, his works of art and his service to the nation gaurantee he will be long remembered.