Another weekend and another day trip from Phnom Penh! This weekend I visited the old capital of Oudong (post coming soon) but stopped along the way at a silver village nearby called Kampong Luoung. Both places are just a short drive outside of Phnom Penh. Tiny silver boxes, often in animal shapes, are a popular souvenir and are found at many shops and markets in Phnom Penh. I had always heard they were originally used to store betel nut, but most have an artistic rather than functional purpose. I’ve been having a hard time finding any information about Khmer silversmithing and these little boxes in particular. (Although an nice short little article can be found here). I was really interested in finding out more about these objects and how they were made, so we arranged to stop at this village and spoke with a woman there and her family who are silversmiths. More on this and LOTS of pictures when you click “keep reading.”
First, I must mention that I couldn’t have gotten any of this information without help from my friend Alberto, who has wicked good Khmer skills and did most of the talking for me.
Kampong Luong is a smallish village just off the road on the way to Oudong. In this village about 30 or 40 families practice silversmithing, but many are leaving because it is not a profitable business. I was surprised to hear this because these little boxes are not necessarily cheap and some can be quite expensive. However their products are sold to middle-men who in turn sell them to other people, so the producers don’t see much profit. The woman we spoke with didn’t want her kids learning the craft because there wasn’t much of a future in it, instead they were going to school.
The woman I spoke with was named Sinat and this is a photo of some of her family and her workshop area. Here is a photo of Sinat.
The block she is holding in her hand is 100% pure silver. She said a kilo of pure silver often costs her about $600. However, she also makes a lot of her crafts out of copper and brass/bronze which is considerably less expensive. Most of these pieces made with a base metal are plated in silver.
I was always under the impression that the metal was heated and poured into a mold. Instead a block of silver like the one above is hammered out and flattened in a machine, like the one below, into a nice thin sheet.
Once you have a nice thin sheet, you can then hammer the metal into a pre-made mold. The metal might be heated slightly to facilitate this process.
ABOVE: On the left is a small mold. On the right someone demonstrates how a sheet of copper might be hammered into the mold.
BELOW: An example of what some unfinished boxes look like after coming out of the mold. On the left a little copper animal and on the right a brass/bronze box. They are still lacking the intricate decorations.
Decorating the boxes is where the real skill comes in. Sinat had a wide variety of tools that she used to incise the designs. They all looked like nails.
Obviously the metal Sinat is working with is relatively soft. So she fills the pieces with a hard tar or resin type material so that she can hammer the designs into the surface and not bend or distort the shape. Sinat was kind enough to show us how she produced the designs on a piece that is kind of like pestle used for crushing betel nut.
These beautiful designs she hammered out while talking to us.
Here are some examples of finished pieces she did all by hand. The small box took about 3 days to complete and the elephant took about a week.
Once the designs are completed the pieces are scrubbed, polished, and left to dry. The pieces are first dipped in a diluted acid solution and then scrubbed in soapy water. This little copper goat was a dark color, like a worn penny before being polished and shined.
Lastly, some pieces made from a base metal are silver plated. The pieces were cleaned and polished first, and then dipped in a mixture that contained a silver solution. The change was instantaneous- from copper to a nice silver coat.
Lastly there is a little touch-up to make sure the edges of the boxes fit together snuggly.
Sinat and her family were incredibly patient and generous with us. They answered all our questions and were eager to share their craft with us. Needless to say, it was hard to leave with out buying a few samples!