Bullets to bracelets: Siem Reap man makes waste from war wearable
Jewellery is often made from valuable gemstones like emeralds or diamonds and precious metals like gold or silver, or valueless things like animal horns. But a man in Siem Reap has approached the manufacture of delicate pieces from a different angle. His unique form of up-cycling has also led to a growing popularity in Europe and the US.
Long Leng turns brass bullet casings, once symbols of Cambodia’s tragic war-torn past, into beautiful necklaces, bracelets and rings.
The blacksmith, who lives in Kruos village and commune in Siem Reap town, told The Post about his impoverished childhood.
He said he was born the fourth of eight siblings to a poor family in Pursat province. His parents did not own their own land and struggled to find the money he needed to attend school.
Leng learned to bake small traditional cakes which he would sell to pay for his school fees. Sometimes, people would pay him to climb trees and collect coconuts. There were days when he would ascend 20 or 30 trees to pay for his education.
He struggled through and finished 12th grade, but his family did not have enough money to send him to university.
He begged permission from his parents to travel to Phnom Penh and search for work. Reluctantly, they granted him his wish, and the young man set out on his adventure.
His luck changed when he met a woman named Mary, who was the president of an association called Rajana. The association taught orphans and impoverished youth to recycle waste items into valuable works of art, and he quickly embraced the skill.
Rajana’s head office was in Phnom Penh, but it also ran workshops in Preah Sihanouk and two branches in Siem Reap.
When Mary resigned as president of the association, she opened a jewellery shop in Siem Reap, and hired Leng as a senior craftsman. After more than a year, in early 2016, he opened his own business, named Chivit Thmey (New Life).
“Chivit Thmey makes a number of unique pieces with traditional Khmer forms – like Angkor or the Romduol flower – but I can also work in European styles. I know most styles and can make custom pieces based on my clients’ tastes,” he said.
He makes rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and other items of jewellery, with prices ranging from $10 to $35.
In Siem Reap, his products are available in Pub Street, supermarkets, and other markets in the province, but he also has distributors in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kampot, Mondulkiri and Battambang. In addition to the domestic markets, he exports to the US and UK.
“People of all ages love my jewellery. For example, my roaches are very popular with the elderly. I get a lot of support from Cambodians – my Khmer style pieces are much more complex than they look,” said Leng.
He added that he has the backing of the Siem Reap provincial Department of Commerce, and that whenever an exhibition is held in other provinces, the ministry of commerce invites him to show his wares.
He collects the cartridge cases from the shooting ranges and military bases of Siem Reap, and occasionally from scrap sellers. Each month, he uses between 30kg and 100 kg to make his jewellery.
“The first time I approached the army barracks, the soldiers wanted to know what I planned to do with their spent brass. Once I explained myself, they agreed to sell them to me,” he said.
I have to cut the base of the shells off, as they contain iron, as cannot be used for jewellery,” he added.
Because he wants to pass on his knowledge to the next generation, he is considering approaching an orphanage or vocational training centre to pass on this uniquely Cambodian art form.
“In the future, I hope to transfer my knowledge and skills to an orphanage. Once I am dead, I cannot take my skills with me! If I do not share what I know, I will regret it,” he said.