The market for decorative ornaments made from silver plated copper does not have much momentum in the current economic climate, yet there are still a few communities in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district who pass the profession down from generation to generation.
At the age of 66, Chea Yuthear has been a metal smith for more than half a century. Few people had heard of him until he began selling his work through social media. Previously, his work was purchased by brokers, who knew that he could not find a market for his products himself. The low prices they offered him almost caused him to abandon the art on more than one occasion. Improved orders – and prices – mean he is now teaching the craft to his son.
Yuthear, who lives in Vihearluong commune’s Salakatsork village, has four children. His second son, Wen Ramo, 35, is studying under his father.
“I have been a metal smith since 1967. I stopped during the Khmer Rouge era, but resumed in 1985. I did not go to school to learn this skill. When I was 15, I learnt from my uncle and two men who had graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts, Kong Bon and Net Chhom, who lived in the same district,” he told The Post.
“In the past, the prices I was offered for my work were so low I almost gave up. Eventually I stopped selling to brokers and kept my work myself. A few years ago, my son created a Facebook page and posted my pieces. They attracted interest from many people, and I have been receiving orders ever since,” he added.
His engravings often feature the story of Reamker or Ramakerti – a Khmer interpretation of the ancient Hindu Ramayana epic poem – with Rama leading an army to war or Hanuman demonstrating one of his powers, although he also produces idyllic rural tableaus, with farmers plowing fields and people climbing palm trees. Naturally, he also offers animals, and the national symbol, Angkor Wat.
Even the small ornaments are not completed in a matter of hours. The time spent on each piece is measured in weeks or months, he said.
“A large ornate bowl will take more than a month. Prices are usually decided by weight, with engraved bowls being $200 per kg,” he said.
Ornamental vistas of Angkor Wat are available, with one sized 20cm by 50cm starting from $500 and a 20cm by 60cm piece going for up to $2,000.
Van Sitha, 29, a third-generation metal smith, learnt the trade from his parents at an early age in Kampong Luong commune’s Portouch village, about 40km from Phnom Penh. The family sell their work under the brand name “Phnhi Tes Handicrafts”, and have maintained its quality and excellent craftsmanship for three generations.
“Not many families have been in the same business for generations. My grandfather began engraving before the Khmer Rouge era, while my parents started doing it after the Pol Pot genocidal regime was overthrown. I represent the third generation. I have studied the craft since I was young, and already knew several techniques when I was 18,” he said.
They produce a variety of copper and silver items to meet customer demand. This includes ornate bowls and pots, tissue paper boxes, teapots, and even pumpkins and animal engravings.
An owner of Phnhi Tes Handicrafts, Sitha is currently establishing a new location in Phnom Penh, located behind the Royal Ratanak Hospital in Teuk Thla commune of the capital’s Sen Sok district.
He described a four layer yellow copper chan srak, or food container.
“We can use two types of copper to produce a chan srak, red or yellow. We charge between $50 and $100 per kg, depending on the copper. They can also be made from silver, which costs from $35 to $100 per kg. A yellow set weighs 2.9kg and is 40cm tall, and is sold for $290. Our craftsmen take almost two months to complete one set,” he said.
Vann Libo, 70, began his career as a coppersmith in a family business in Koh Chen commune’s Prek Kdam village. He learnt silver and copper engraving from the age of 16, studying under his uncle.
After the Kingdom was liberated in 1979, he restarted his career. Demand in Cambodia was not high, and in 1992 he began exporting his pieces to Thailand. Domestic support for his work had grown by 2000, and he has marketed within the Kingdom since then.
“At that time there was no market in Cambodia, so we sent the ornaments to Thailand by car. The prices were not as good as they are now,” he added.
His son and son-in-law are carrying on the tradition, although he says he personally inspects the quality of each piece before it is sold. Their work is marketed under the brand “Anlong Chen Handicraft Centre”.
“In the past, we had only our imaginations to guide us. We would conceive of a concept and then execute it. Later, there were more craftsmen working, and we would collaborate and share ideas,” he said.
Libo added that his silver engravings are more detailed than the copper ones, but silver is more expensive to purchase. Engraving in silver requires a lot of focus and care, he said.
Since 2000, he said the market for both kinds of ornaments has fallen, but silver is recovering better. Silver is soft, however, which means copper is actually harder to work with.
Libo said both kinds of silver engraving require a lot of patience, physical strength and intelligence, plus a meticulous understanding of the contents of the engraving.
“Apprentice metal smiths need to be very patient. Some people come to learn from us but leave after a day or two. Learning to engrave requires passion and perseverance. I have trained a lot of people, and if anyone is interested and wants to learn I will accept them as an apprentice. I want the next generation to take care of this valuable part of our cultural heritage,” he added.
He called on the government and all Cambodian to promote the profession and promote Khmer products.