At Shinta Mani’s Made in Cambodia market last month, one particular stall attracted quite a crowd – Claycult Cambodia, makers of jewellery from handmade ceramic beads made of clay sourced in Sihanoukville.
The reason for the excitement? None other than Sam Rainsy, who was purchasing a colourful necklace for his daughter.
“There was this crowd around our stall and I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Lucienne Manzart, one half of Claycult Cambodia. “And it was Sam Rainsy and his wife who’s lovely, and he bought a multi-coloured necklace, one with larger beads.”
Lucienne and her husband Robby started the business two and a half years ago in Sihanoukville, where they’d been running a small hotel since 2008. Robby and Lucienne, who had her own studio in Australia, discovered there were good clay deposits to be found locally and the idea for Claycult Cambodia was born.
“Lu has a degree in ceramic technology, she studied in Australia for five years,” Robby says. “I identified a niche in the market for beads, because every time I wanted to take a gift from Cambodia home there was only baskets and silk and I got a bit sick of that.”
Along with one of his staff members, Savet, now being trained to take over the workshop, Robby built a gas kiln and started experimenting with clay.
Lucienne admits that at the beginning there was some trial and error – although she’d sculpted many pieces in Australia she had never made beads before, so it was something of a learning curve.
“You don’t tend to do beads because they are a very specialised area requiring very specialised things,” she says. “We had to source the clay, we had to build the kiln, find fire bricks and high-temperature wires that could go in the kiln. There was a lot of research to be done first and then a lot of discovering what would work and what wouldn’t.
“But we wanted something that people could buy that was made here by the locals, that also was easy for people to take back. The other reason was we wanted to be able to give something back, so teach them something and then have this ongoing business for the future.”
The couple moved to Siem Reap late last year and now employs a staff of ten, four from Sihanoukville and six from Siem Reap, with a view to making Claycult “fully sustainable and run entirely by the local people.”
The bead making process is intricate and lengthy, taking up to two weeks from start to finish.
The clay is dried, powdered, put in buckets, slaked with water and when settled it’s laid out to dry. Once ready, the clay is hand-rolled into beads, a small hole is made in each one and they are left to dry, which can take up to a week.
“They come out soft, air dried, and then they’re glaze-fired in our other kiln,” Robby explains. “They’re all stacked on wire and fired for about eight hours.”
Once the beads are cool they are vitrified, or transformed into a hard, glass-like state. They are then stuck onto bamboo skewers to be hand painted, and up to six coats of glaze might be applied, some of which Lucienne makes herself.
“It’s a very labour-intensive process,” says Robby. “Each bead, once it’s finished, might have been handled 12 to 14 times.”
Claycult produces a range of glossy necklaces and bracelets from beads of all shapes and sizes and in eye-popping colours, from gobstopper-sized scarlet ones, to delicate blue and white patterned beads that resemble Japanese china.
Robby and Lu are even working on a collection of skull-shaped beads and there are tubular varieties, plus glazes containing crystals.
“You can make any type of bead you want really. You’re just bound by your imagination. I’m going to make key-chains out of these,” Robby says, showing some smooth, flat sea-green beads.
Tourists comprise the biggest part of Claycult’s market, and the jewellery is particularly popular with Australians, Chinese and Koreans.
“Our biggest sales are probably places like the airport,” says Lucienne. Other outlets include Bambou Indochine, La Résidence d’Angkor, Victoria Angkor Resort and Raffles. In Phnom Penh the beads are sold at outlets including Villa Langka, and Elsewhere on St 240.”
Claycult’s jewellery also recently featured in Phnom Penh Designers Week, in the collection of Australian label La’or. In terms of selling abroad, the company exports to Australia, North America and there is interest from France and from Shanghai.
Prices start at $20 for a tube necklace, going up to over $100 for pieces featuring antique beads from Bangkok.
“I’ve always had a great love of beads, so I collect antique or beautiful specialty beads of some sort that are a little bit unusual, and then I’ll mix them in with ours,” says Lucienne.
Bead fiends can visit Claycult Cambodia’s workshop, off Wat Bo Road towards Wat Polanka, Monday to Saturday from 9am-12pm, or 1-4pm.