Ratanakkiri precious stone a hidden gem

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Alice Varini in her jewellery showroom on Street 240 in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Look closely at the photo accompanying this article of the ring that has a sparkling blue oval gemstone set in a gold band with a design that is simple but with a classy elegance. You’d guess it was a teal sapphire or maybe an aquamarine, right?

Wrong. The gemstone in the ring that I’m describing is actually a zircon and their use in jewellery has been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds in recent years internationally – which is great news for Cambodia, because Ratanakkiri province is the only known large scale commercially-viable source for these coveted blue zircon stones.

Many people – including some Cambodians – aren’t aware of this because Cambodia’s zircons don’t start out blue. They are brown zircons that turn blue when heat-treated, but Ratanakkiri is the only place in the world where this curious variety of zircon are to be found.

The ring just described was designed by Alice Varini, a French jeweller and gemmologist. It is just one among dozens of stunning and creative designs found in her showroom on Street 240 in Phnom Penh.

“Don’t be confused by the name. Zircon is a natural, magnificent and underrated gemstone that has been worn and treasured since ancient times. It is definitely not cubic zirconia,” Varini emphasises.

“Zircon is one of the modern December birthstones, it is available in many colours and it looks wonderful in jewellery if set carefully,” says Varini.

What makes Varini’s jewellery stand out is her choice to only use verifiably ethical and sustainable sources for her gemstones. There are no blood diamonds in Varini’s shop and there never will be, nor anything else of dubious provenance or exploitative origins.

“I could make a lot more money just importing ready-made jewellery from Thailand and China, actually. But what would be the point? I want to sell unique items that are handmade by local artisans. That is why all of our jewellery is different,” Varini explains.

Varini says she works with local miners, local jewellers and local gem-cutters – all of whom she has built up a relationship of trust with over time despite her being a foreigner.

“There is no standard cut or standard size in Cambodia’s gemstone industry. Most of my suppliers are families who directly mine and cut them. They are the people who I want to support and who I know I can trust,” Varini says.

Varini says she adores Cambodia’s unique gems and that she cherishes her relationships with the local miners and craftsmen she has met over the course of her 7-year stay in the Kingdom.

Originally hired by Artisans Angkor in Siem Reap, Varini arrived in Cambodia in 2014 with a mission to train Cambodian jewellers and help them build a jewellery workshop and design their first jewellery collection.

“I worked with Artisans Angkor for three years. After three years I moved on because we had achieved our goals there once the company was up and running with well-trained workers.

“So I decided to move on and face new challenges and learn new things while I was still young and had some time to explore my potential,” Varini tells The Post.

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Varini, 31, graduated with a degree in design from Haute Ecole de Joaillerie and in gemmology from France’s National institute of Gemmology after a total of eight long years of study.

In her cosy showroom on Street 240, she has jewellery made from zircons, rubies, sapphires and more in a rainbow of colours that sparkle in shades of ruby red to emerald green along with yellow topaz, purple amethysts and Cambodia’s very own blue zircons.

“This is also my office, and my design space and also my workshop ... but I would rather call this a showroom since I’m not on the ground floor,” she says while giving me the grand tour.

Varini’s gemstones are all set into delicate and tastefully designed rings, pendants and bracelets.

“I make all of my jewellery from silver and gold with natural gemstones that I hand-select myself,” she says.

Alice Varini Jewellery has sparked some interest from international clientele of late and Varini feels this is because she understands what her customers want and so she simply gives it to them – but only in limited editions – no matter how popular the design might prove to be.

“All of my pieces are made in very limited editions, a maximum of 10 pieces only,” Varini says.

Clients from France, America, Australia, Russia, Japan, Korea – and lately, more and more locals – have all marvelled at the precious handmade treasures Varini is offering, with at least a few new faces visiting her showroom monthly this past year despite the pandemic.

Recently, a woman visiting her shop came to pick up a ring that she had special-ordered and she stood staring at it in silence for minutes before saying that she’d never seen something that beautiful in her entire life.

“I almost broke down and cried, it was such a wonderful compliment to hear,” Varini says.

Varini says that her three favourite ring designs of all time she’s created are named for women – Lisa, Adana and Bopha.

Adana has a row of three pale blue zircons from Ratanakkiri, almost appearing as if they were suspended in mid-air, while Lisa has a rough oval piece of blue zircon in its centre and smaller zircons on its side and Bopha is inspired by the crown of the Apsara and thus, fittingly, also uses Cambodian zircons.

Right now in her showroom, Varini has pieces ranging in price from $15 up to $500. She prefers to keep most of her jewellery as affordable and accessible as she can to better serve the local market.

However, the most expensive piece she has ever made, she admits, was a ring and bangle set with 18k Rose Gold settings and decorated with ruby and diamond gemstones.

They were sold as a matching set to the customer who’d ordered them by special request – paying $3000 and $5000 for each, respectively.

“Orders like that do happen. It’s just part of being a jeweller – but not every day, more like once in a blue moon as the saying goes,” Varini explains.

Success for Varini is about more than money or the price tags on the jewellery she designs and sells. The creative and artistic aspects of her profession are overlooked by many people, but Varini says they were motivated her primarily to become a jeweller in the first place.

“I do wish I could hire an assistant to help me out, maybe someone local with more connections. I would like to have more time to do more creative design work. I believe we can always be better and we should never stop trying to improve product quality,” Varini says.

If you’re interested in learning about gems and designing and making your own jewellery, Varini holds monthly workshops on these topics that are open to the public and the next one on her schedule will be April 25.

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Alice will hold workshops on April 25 on Cambodian gemmology and how to create your own DIY's jeweller. Photo supplied

Varini says she loves to teach and that the April 25 workshop will be divided into two sessions.

The first session will be a gemmology workshop and Varini will teach you everything you need to know about Cambodian gemstones and answer all your questions so you can learn everything you want to know about them as well.

People will discover where the true hidden gems are located at within the Kingdom of Wonder and how they can find gemstones themselves.

The gemmology workshop also covers gemstone identification, how to tell whether a stone is natural, synthetic or just plain fake as well as how to care for gemstones and more. It will be two and a half hours minimum and the cost is $45 per person.

The second workshop session is all about DIY jewellery and it is shorter and more hands-on and fun, lasting about 90 minutes. Varini will teach you how to make a cordon bracelet yourself and explain the differences between cubic zirconia and natural white zircons.

“Cambodia is blessed to have beautiful natural gemstones. I am passionate about blue zircons and also white zircons. They are some of the prettiest gems in the world and they’ve been treasured by people through all of human history. Before history as we know it, actually.

“We are so lucky in Cambodia to have the only source for the unique blue zircons here,” Varini says.

Varini invites anyone and everyone who is curious about gemstones and wants to know more to join her at her workshop on April 25 or just drop by a visit and and check out her creations any time.

Asked if she has any message she’d like to convey or words of wisdom, Varini doesn’t hesitate:

“Buy local, shop local and produce local – especially for jewellery and gemstones,” she says.

Alice Varini Jewellery is located at 29 Oknha Chhun Street (St 240) on the first floor above Bliss Spa. Patrons are welcome to visit between 1pm to 6pm and her special workshops will be held on April 25.

For more information, Alice Varini Jewellery can be reached via Facebook: @alicevarinijewelry.