World renown for its silk, gems and wood products, Cambodia remains relatively unheralded for its silver craftwork.
It’s a bit of a mystery. A stroll through the serene and elegant national Museum in Phnom Penh provides an idea of the level of craft that has been practiced throughout the history of Cambodia.
When not regularly exposed to the real thing, it’s easy to forget how skilled and creative the early Khmers were. Present day Phnom Penh, for example, isn’t exactly a showcase for the best of handicrafts on the planet, although there are ample legitimate reasons for that.
Still, in the world of silver there is clear and glowing proof that present day Khmers can indeed still make striking gleaming metal objects.
The epicenter for silversmiths is unquestionably the Russian Market. While there are other silversmiths scattered throughout Phnom Penh and beyond, it is the concentration of so many retailers and even some small workshops that distinguish the Russian Market from other locales. Perhaps 15 to 20 vendors specializing in silver jewelry have set up shop and the growing market demand seems to justify that quantity.
The two main attractions for the typical foreigner shopping for silver craft are the relatively low prices and the opportunity to design personal and unique pieces. As an artist, I was excited about the possibility to design silver bracelets and necklaces that I had never seen before.
But what to make, exactly?
I decided to make manly testosterone-loaded silver jewelry and even attempt a remake of the time-worn and feminine-associated charm bracelet.
I then came up with 2 themes for what I was calling “object bracelets,” a re-branding of a jewelry style that only females were seen to wear. The first one would be scooter parts (shock absorber, piston, spark plug, headlight, ignition key, seat, etc.) all laced to a sterling silver version of a motorcycle chain. The other one would alternate various styles of vintage cameras with tiny silver frames housing personal photographs.
For the moto-themed bracelet I first “rented” from several vendors all the real-life scooter parts that I needed copied and miniaturized. Then I dropped off a large, nappy, burlap bag with all the parts on the jeweler’s glass case for them to use as models for the charms.
For the photo-themed bracelet I needed 3-D models of several cameras. I found them all cruising ebay. Printing out the auction pages I was able to show the craftsmen precisely what I wanted.
Nita of Seak Lim Silver.
When commissioning craftwork in Cambodia there are 3 options for the outcome: exactly what you had in mind; way off the mark; or even better than you had initially imagined.
Largely because of shopkeeper Nita’s winning combination of totally fluent English with an understanding of what strange Westerner’s want, I was ecstatic with the realization of my designs at the Seak Lim Silver shop.
Their translation of my concepts was breathtaking to behold.
Often when buying and/or designing jewelry you can combine the silver with various gems like opal, amethyst, emerald, topaz, garnet and tourmaline.
Pailin in the west is noted for its rubies, sapphires, and glorious blue onyx gemstones, as well as zircon, which comes in a wide range of colors (blue, white, green, yellow, orange), and many varieties of aquamarine stones. All make beautiful and affordable embellishments to any silver piece.
The main thing to remember when hunting for native designs or creating your own in the wonderful world of silver in Cambodia is that you can have it your way. There are not many places left in the shrinking globe where you can find a sweet mix of reasonable pricing, accomplished artisans and enthusiastic attitudes when making unique silver jewelry.
And not only do you get to see your idea blossom into a stunning piece of artwork, you are also likely to find the process fun and intriguing. Can there be a better way to adorn?