Silver items are widely used across the Kingdom – religion, jewelry, fashion, housewares – since time immemorial. But as the demands for silver rise, the quality of the products and the silver itself have undeniably diminished. With this, jeweler Py Ngav strives hard to bring back silver into the limelight as Cambodia’s most precious metal. Rama Ariadi talks with him.
Different cultures assign different meaning to different objects. Gold, for example, is associated with wealth, power and whatnot for its role in backing up currency values across the globe, as well as for its aesthetic value that makes it the go-to precious metal for jewelry production. While at present, its sun-light lustre is highly sought after, it certainly was not the case in other cultures and other time periods.
Take silver, for example. This precious metal has always played second fiddle to its more expensive relative in modern times – but that was not always the case. During the height of the Khmer Empire, silver commanded such a high value that one legend has it that when the Siamese attempted to ransack Yasodharapura (present day Siem Reap), the city was fortified with an almost impregnable fortifications made out of bamboo. The only way that the Siamese could sack the heart of Angkor was by scattering silver ores and trinkets among the trees – which the Khmers took by cutting down the one last barrier that protected the ancient temple city.
“It is a folklore that many Cambodians have heard at some point in their lives,” said the lead designer and owner of Lotus Space, Py Ngav. “But these days, silver is considered as a second-rate metal compared to gold – and this is exactly what I wanted to change.”
According to Mr Py, one of the reasons why silversmithing is considered as a dying art in Cambodia is due to the improper treatment of the raw ores that can be found in mines in the kingdom’s northern borders. “Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia does have high quality silver deposits,” he explained. “That said, the metal is often treated or tempered with nickel and what not – as a result, it lacks the lustre that makes silver a special, precious metal on its own right.”
As a result, Mr Py opts to use imported silver from Singapore to create his designs, which ranges from small, simple rings and bracelets to more ornately designed necklaces and brooches. “To some, it may seem like a contradiction that I am trying to revive the art of silversmithing in Cambodia, using imported materials,” he said. “That said, jewelries made out of silver are meant to last for a lifetime – and improper treatment of such a delicate material could actually lessen its lifespan, which would be even more counterproductive to my goals.”
Mr Py’s goal, which he kept mentioning over and over again, is to bring silver to the front seat – as a precious metal that could hold its own weight against its more famous relatives such as gold and titanium.
“If I were to use Cambodian-sourced silvers, there is little doubt that customers would not come back because improperly treated silver will tarnish easily – it would turn eventually to ‘black’, which requires serious polishing to bring back its lustre,” he continued. “Any oxidation on properly treated silver can be easily wiped off with a clean, damp cloth – as simple as that.”
Mr Py’s insistence on using high-quality silver means that he has to place his products in a higher price bracket. With prices ranging from double digits to the high three digits, Mr Py’s offerings may scare a lot of potential customers – a valid point considering that Cambodia had only recently shed its least developed country (LDC) status, and many still eke out of living out of what in other countries would be considered as refuse materials.
Mr Py thinks that he has found a strategy to embrace those who could afford to splurge and other who still need to scrimp on their savings to live. “Every design that I make with my team of jewelers are relatively simple compared to the ornate designs that can be seen elsewhere across the region,” he explained.
This design rationale can be seen in the 200-plus design that is on offer, a staggering number of products considering that Mr Py only opened his shop at the start of the year, with only three artisans on his permanent roster. His products straddle Nordic minimalism with its simplistic angular lines and traditional Khmer symbols and designs – from what looked like a bent paper clip earring made of silver to a ring adorned with a blooming lotus flower.
The simpler the design, said Mr Py, the more it is likely to last in the hands of the owner. “Understated designs go well with most outfits,” explained Mr Py of his rationale. “Plus, jewelry are supposed to bring out the natural beauty of the wearer, not to hide them behind the jewels.”
A little over a month ago, a team of surveyors found a small, but significant deposit of gold and silver in the province of Preah Vihear – which could possibly mean good news for silversmiths and jewelers like Mr Py, as they would no longer need to rely on imported goods to promote what is in essence, Cambodian handicraft. That said Mr, Py does not seem to be too convinced that the finding would help the promotion of Cambodia’s silver handicrafts.
“We’ve always had silver deposits – but the biggest problem is not the amount, but how ores are processed,” lamented Mr Py. “As long as the processing of the ores are not brought up to par to international standards, Cambodian silver products will never get the recognition they truly deserve.”