A thriving jewellery design scene is emerging in Siem Reap, with the latest player being former Sothea Hotel general manager Sarah Moya.
She’s launched a new range of jewellery called Earth and, fittingly, some of the items are made from rocks and stones from the banks of Siem Reap’s lake and the seashores of Kampot and Kep, and are bound in soft metals such as copper.
All of the items are handmade and proceeds from sales go to the Khmer Independent Life Team, an organisation made up of landmine victims. They are available to buy from Art Deli on Alley West.
The designs are as strong as the elements from which they are made and, says Moya, are “about going back to the basics of who we are and where we are and what inspires us as individuals”.
This derives in large part, she says, from the necessary creativity born out of the difficulties artists face in obtaining materials in Cambodia.
“I’ve been looking around a lot for inspiration” says Moya, who wanted to convey something unique, raw and elemental about Cambodia in her work. Subsequently, taking the very earth Cambodia is made from seemed a natural choice.
The jewellery on sale at Sao Mao follows a similar guiding principle to Earth. The pieces are also made by local craftspeople who have been trained by Marie Hill,
a French designer based in Siem Reap. But Hill’s designs are very different to Moya’s. They are less punchy and more flowing, refined and intricate.
Hers is the sort of jewellery that can be worn every day whereas Earth items are definitely made to make an impression.
Most of Hill’s designs are crafted from silver, though a number of the pieces are made from reformed brass and copper that has been melted down from old military equipment like bullet casings.
Sao Mao, which operates on fair trading principles to ensure suitable incomes for the community, faces the Old Market, beside Aha restaurant.
But in seeking unusual jewellery, it is impossible to bypass the magic box that is the Poetry store on Alley West.
This shop is home to the works of Don Protasio and Loven Ramos, as well as many of their friends, and is just about the last word in must-have oddity. Here you can find a skull tiara as well as necklaces, bracelets and rings made from soft drink can tabs, razor blades, forks and spoons, dice, Champagne corks, scissors, safety pins, feathers and just about anything else the boys can lay their hands on.
Not all of the work is so off-the-wall though, and there are many pieces that won’t make grandmother wonder what the world is coming to.
Co-owner and designer Protasio says his work in Siem Reap is very different to what he produces in his home country of the Philippines because Cambodia brings out different aspects of his creative personality.
“Here I can embrace the colours in me,” he says.
“I guess because there is so much colour in Cambodia, so much intensity”.
And who could overlook Wanderlust, the creative home of New York style maven Elizabeth Kiester?
The shop is a cornucopia of the bright, the light and the enormously fun. Like Kiester, the jewellery has a sense of controlled flamboyancy. The pieces are vibrant and off-beat, but still practical and never veer off into the flippant. There are dozens of bracelets, boxy wooden bangles in blazing colours and items made from fabric that can be matched to the shop’s racks of dresses.
Kiester, a former US magazine fashion editor, knows all too well that long strings of beads – whether they’re round or square, silver or coloured – are akin to the Little Black Dress; they are never not fashionable, and so are in constant supply at Wanderlust.
Across the way in the Alley, the atmosphere changes entirely. Nestled within the bustling cluster of restaurants is a little oasis of calm and reflection.
Garden of Desire is the outlet for the designs of Ly Pisith, a Cambodian man who escaped to France after being one of the only members of his family to survive the reign of the Khmer Rouge. There, he trained as an architect, but then moved on to become a designer.
Returning to Cambodia in 2007, Ly Pisith set up his own workshop and retail outlet in 2008 and hasn’t looked back.
His philosophy is not about what’s pretty, which is not to say that it’s not about what’s beautiful. Ly Pisith’s works are exquisitely beautiful, not just on the basis of their aesthetics, but also because of their balance and integrity. They are a pure and honest reflection of him, sometimes intensely so, such as his earrings made from stitched up broken stars.
Ly Pisith comes from a Christian family, which taught him the motto: “Don’t worry. Pray and you will be saved”. For so many nights during the Khmer Rouge years, he lay under the stars and prayed and prayed that his family would be saved.
It didn’t work. After that, he couldn’t bring himself to look at the night sky for years.
The delicate pieces of jewellery, made by a man as fragile, yet as strong, as Khmer silk, are stitched together as part of his journey to metaphorically stitch his own self back together again.
“Because I felt something had broken,” he says, “I had to try and sew the stars back together again. This is part of why I had to come back here, to recover from the past, and I couldn’t do that in France.”
A quiet, deep intelligence informs every item in this jewellery shop, from the chunky silver necklace that is as light as a feather and a reflection on the weather,
to a long necklace made of a series of delicate cages that discusses the consequences of man’s attempts to ensnare nature.
“Man tries to capture nature,” says Pisith, “but he cannot. In the end, nature will always evade man’s cage.”
This piece alone took one month to create.
Cambodia gives Ly Pisith the freedom, the air, he needs to explore his own creativity, but the artist continues to struggle with the idea of finding success after so many years of hardship.
“In a globalised world, it’s easy to function, to follow the trends. But there is no freedom to take risks.”
Ly Pisith has taken risks, though. And through his innovative work and that of all of the designers in town, Siem Reap and Cambodia in general have become a much richer place to be.