A shop in Siem Reap is turning the proverbial swords into plowshares by beating bullets into bracelets. The retail outlet, Sao Mao, by the Old Market, makes beautiful, brass bracelets, necklaces and rings from discarded bomb shells and bullet casings.
Owner Marie Hill stumbled across the idea in 1998 when she was working with Rajana, a project training disadvantaged Khmer youths in arts and crafts skills. The husband of a friend of hers worked in rural development and spotted some villagers making gongs out of shells. He suggested it might be of interest to Rajana.
“We went out to see that village, and bought some of our staff. We then decided that we would buy that stuff from them,” Hill explains. “That’s how it started, those people were doing it already.
She says the village people were saying they really liked the American bombs because gongs made from them created the best sound for pagodas.
She adds, “And Russian bombs were second best.”
Rajana first made gongs and cow bells made of bullets that were sold as Christmas decorations, and then graduated to making jewellery.
Then in 2001, Hill moved from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and set up Sao Mao.
She says, “I used to get some of the old M16 bullets. I had a friend who used to work in Halo Trust, so we’d get stuff from the incinerator.”
Hill is keen to stress the bomb shells have obviously all been safely detonated by the time she and her artisans get their hands on them.
She designs a lot of items herself, but Sao Mao also makes bespoke items if a customer requests it.
A famous American rapper, who wishes to remain anonymous, recently commissioned some stunning ‘bone’ design jewellery including a necklace made to look like vertebrae going down the back of the neck, and an extremely bling brass cuff.
Additionally, Hill’s brass and silversmiths are taught and encouraged to come up with their own designs, sketching motifs and patterns from Angkor Wat. Some have submitted entries to the forthcoming Siem Reap Souvenir Design Competition.
It takes about an hour to make a simple bangle bracelet, three hours to make a necklace and up to three or four days to make the more intricate items.
Hill takes me upstairs to the small workshop to show me the process, where her two silversmiths are working away.
The entire set up is simple but precise, with everything done by hand.
First the bullets are blasted with a blow torch. Once melted the brass is poured into a long, thin, bar-shaped mould, plunged into cold water and put through a mangle.
Hill explains that after it’s mangled, the workers can either punch it or filigree cut it and when it’s a flat bar they just bend it round. Then the items are either polished or sanded, depending on the design.
The popular bullet bracelets, which sell for $25, bear the Khmer words for “peace”, “love”, “hope” or “community” on them. There are also bracelets for sale at the Landmine Museum that say, “One Mine, One Life.”
Leang Long, who trained for two years to be a silversmith, shows me how this is done with a metal stamp that he hammers against the soft brass.
What’s interesting about the process is the notion of taking something ugly such as discarded explosive weaponry, and turning it into something so beautiful.
Hill says, “We have got that transformation of changing bullets into products of peace and that was the reason we did it in a way.
“It was just such a weird thing to make such peaceful cow-bells out of bullets.”
In the future Hill says she would like to send some jewellery to London’s Imperial War Museum, but for now she has her hands full running the shop and workshop as well as teaching photography to young Khmers.
She also wants to keep the business small which precludes being able to make works on a large-scale.
“We’ve had people before who’ve wanted one thousand items, but we can’t make enough. We can make 10 a day.”