HARD work and creative design have helped heal the scars of the past for Siem Reap jewellery designer Ly Pisith.
His sculptural necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pendants, wrought in fine sterling silver and semi-prec-ious stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli, have won a broad international following.
But the inspiration for many of these pieces still stems from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, Ly Pisith explains softly at his studio.
Opening his shop, called Garden of Desire, in 2008 marked a complete change of direction for the French-educated architect and graphic designer, who had designed spectacles for such brands as Alain Mikkli and Philippe Starck during his 30 years in France.
Global warming, landmine victims and cages have all sparked Ly Pisith’s designs over the past few years, since he decided to concentrate full time on making jewellery.
Ly Pisith, the youngest of three child-ren, was nine when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April, 1975. He soon lost contact with his family.
Forced to walk barefoot across hundreds of kilometres of dangerous country to reach refugee camps in Thailand, the young boy faced daily terrors and hardships.
“I have never forgotten even a minute of the Kampuchea Democratic Republic period. That’s why I spend my time working hard: to keep the memories away,” he says.
“What I can remember mostly is hardship. I have rarely told anyone because I feel embarrassed, and not everyone would believe my story.
“A few weeks before the Khmer Rouge came, I was at school. Then one day, I woke up and heard shooting and bombing.
“Some people stayed inside but others ran out, holding a white flag. Nobody knew what was happening and I was too young to understand.
“My house had been taken over by other people. That’s why I was living on the side of the road and doing jobs such as pulling vegetable carts.
“I asked someone for some leftover rice, and kept it in a can so I could eat it over the next few days.
“Then I heard someone had gone up to the border to buy soap, so I decided to follow. But I had no money for the train fare.”
One day, Ly Pisith managed to find a space on top of the train – but it crashed in Pursat province, killing and injuring other passengers.
“Luckily, I just had minor injuries, but then had to walk from Pursat to the border with Thailand,” he says.
The boy spent two months hanging around the border, waiting with various other families until it was safe to cross the frontier.
Finally, he reached the safety of a refugee camp and, after two years, was sent to be educated in France.
Ly Pisith’s hard work and talent won him scholarships, and he graduated from the Institute Universitaire de Technologie in Bordeaux and later studied graphic arts and decoration at the Beaux Arts de Paris school.
After the war, Ly Pisith discovered that his pilot father and artist mother had died, along with his bother and sister.
Despite all this, the pleasure Ly Pisith gains from creating vibrant jewellery seems to lighten the heavy burden of his tragic past. “I don’t worry about the Khmer Rouge any longer,” he says.
“I haven’t even been following the Extraordinary Chambers of Court in Cambodia, because nowadays I focus only on my jewellery designing.”
Garden of Desire is on Pub Street, Siem Reap, near the Old Market; www.gardenofdesire-asia.com.