It is impossible to read Cambodia’s modern history without going through the part about the decades-long civil war. The war brought with it all kinds of suffering for the people, but no pain is as grave as losing beloved family members. For years, Thoeun Chantha, a local jeweller, has been living with this stigma since he was a little boy. He hates war and wants to come up with a way to make others feel the same. Today, he is well-known as the man who turns the war remnants into beautiful jewellery. Story by Taing Rinith.
It was one morning in the late 1980s in Cambodia’s province of Pursat, which back then was a hotspot in the skirmish between the Khmer Rouge forces and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea’s army. Eight-year-old Thoeun Chantha had just woken up from sleep, too young to know what had happened the night before. As he was quietly walking out of his house, Chantha saw the lifeless body of his father, a military officer in the government’s army, lying just near the house.
At first, Chantha thought his father was sleeping, but when he looked closer, he noticed his father’s left shoulder and arm were mutilated. He learned later his father had been killed with a rocket fired by a Khmer Rouge soldier the previous night. His father was supposed to be stationed at his military base that night, however when he was informed Khmer Rouge soldiers were going to his village, he returned to come get his son out of there.
“My mother died 4 years earlier, so with my father’s death, I became an orphan without even a sibling,” Chantha, now 39, told GT2 this week. “With the loss of my father, I did not only lose a person who loved me the most but also the opportunity for education.”
After living briefly with his grandparents, young Chantha chose to live at a local orphanage managed by an NGO to receive vocational training. After a few years, he discovered his passion for making jewellery.
“Jewellery making was one of the training provided by the NGO and it was also the hardest,” Chantha says. “But, I felt I had the talent for it, because I loved crafting beautiful objects.”
Chantha eventually learned to make rings, bracelets, necklaces and other pieces of jewellery from his master. He completed his apprenticeship in 1996 and then came to work in a workshop run by another NGO in Phnom Penh. A few years later, the prices of the precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum skyrocketed, making it harder and harder for the workshop to sustain. Then, Chantha came up with an idea, which would later completely change his life.
“Back then, I noticed that some expats kept mortar and bullet shells in their homes or offices as decoration,” Chantha says. “If they were kept as décor, why couldn’t we turn them into the beautiful accessories for people to wear? So I presented this idea to my boss, who approved it.”
After years of civil wars and thousands of battles in Cambodia, mortar and bullet shells could be easily found all over the country. But, the abundance of the material was not what inspired the young jeweller.
“I hated the war, which took my father from me forever,” he says. “I believed turning ammunition used to kill people in a war into beautiful adornments would serve as a reminder to people that war brings nothing but destruction and grief.”
When the jewellery which Chantha designed and made, using traditional decorative patterns or kbach using natural elements such as leaves and flowers, were put on sale for the first time, many foreigners, especially the Japanese, were not pleased with it.
“They thought what I had come up with was promoting the idea of war,” Chantha says. “However, when I explained my original idea to them, they supported me and bought a lot of my products.”
In 2010, Chantha resigned from his job to start his own workshop. He got married to Kol Thany and with $550, three months of his salary and support from a few of his foreign patrons, Angkor Bullet Jewellery was founded.
Starting with a small table at a corner of his mother-in-law’s house with no other help apart from his wife, Chantha now owns a flat at Phnom Penh’s Prekpra commune with a number of machines and 8 employees. His jewellery is being sold all over Cambodia and even overseas.
“It has been a tough journey, but we are doing fine now, providing for our two children,” Thany, Chantha’s wife who was tailor, says. “My husband trained me well in his craft. We are also happy we are able to provide training and jobs to people who are facing financial difficulty who come to work in our workshop.”
Marry Alan, an Australian designer working in Cambodia who often comes to Angkor Bullet Jewellery to buy her jewellery, says to her Chantha’s products are even more valuable than those made from gold or silver.
“The bracelets and rings I bought from him somehow make me feel the pain that Cambodian people have been through,” Alan says. “But, even more important is that he is turning the things that take people’s lives into what people want.”
Meanwhile, Chantha says he wants to expand his works beyond Cambodia and a handful of countries. His dream is to see them contribute to the end of wars and conflicts forever.
“Again, I ask, what is good is war?” he says. “After all these years, I still miss my father, who loved me unconditionally.”