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From bullets to bangles: Artisans make jewellery from war remnants

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Metal is heated and shaped into rings by an Ammo-trained jeweller. SUPPLIED

From bullets to bangles: Artisans make jewellery from war remnants

In the craft alley of Wat Bo Road located in a part of downtown Siem Reap that was once bustling with tourists, a social enterprise workshop employs local craftsmen who are turning used bullet shells into modern jewellery under the name Chan Alanka.

The jewellery at Chan Alanka is created by Thorn Chantrea – the 30-year-old one-time apprentice of British jeweller Madeline Green – and the shiny geometric shaped metal accessories not only make a fashion statement, they also contain a piece of Cambodian history embedded into them and that’s what inspired Green to start a social enterprise turning war remnants into contemporary jewellery.

The longstanding practice of Cambodians recycling bullets from the country’s decades-old conflicts was an inspiration to Green, who founded her social enterprise Ammo six years ago.

Based in Siem Reap, the workshop employs local Cambodian craftsmen who specialise in recycling spent bullet cartridges to make positive and ethical handmade jewellery.

The process of turning spent brass cartridges into beautiful handcrafted jewellery helps to provide apprenticeship training in jewellery manufacture, design and business skills to young women as well as to disadvantaged and disabled Cambodians.

Green says Cambodians originally began recycling bullets that they literally dug-up with their bare hands in the fields starting in the 90’s after armed conflict in Cambodia finally came to its official end.

As increasing numbers of people returned to rice farming and agriculture again, they began using all of the scrap metal from the remnants of war to make farming tools like cow bells and rice scythes.

The idea to make jewellery from the bullets came about when a woman working in a refugee camp noticed all of the creative uses that Cambodians had found for the abundant scrap metal.

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The practice of repurposing or recycling metal items left-over from the war in Cambodia began in earnest in the 90’s when farmers began to dig up fields again. SUPPLIED

“She came from a design background like me, and decided that there might be a positive way to channel that scrap recycling process. So she started to design jewellery. That was 25 years ago and from there the skill has continued to be passed down,” Green says.

After visiting Cambodia on holiday as a backpacker, Green then ended up staying in the Kingdom for over eight years. She founded Ammo and began her work as its designer in 2014.

“The reason I stay in Cambodia is because I get a sense of community here. In fact, before I came here, I’d just given up being a jeweller after many years spent in that profession back in England. I just didn’t feel very creative there. But as soon as I got to Cambodia, everything started to come back again,” Green tells The Post.

She continues “It’s easy to get motivated to do something new when you get up in the morning because there are always people out there willing to give something a try. It’s like a can-do attitude, which I think sometimes in the west is a little bit lacking, especially with young people.”

“We make positive and ethical handmade jewellery, which in turn provides employment and future self-sufficiency for the Cambodians who are the most at risk from poverty and exploitation,” Green says.

Green explains that her staff members all start off by receiving six months of skills training, where they learn about metals, pattern making, forming, soldering and finishing.

Once they have mastered the Ammo jewellery designs, each student then gets to become an independent designer. Each week they use one of their shifts to design and create their own jewellery collections under the guidance of the management team.

Ammo also helps to sell their products to various outlets and at events, and gives a percentage of the profits back to the designer and maker of each piece.

But when Green returned to the UK at the start of the pandemic, Ammo had to quickly innovate and establish itself online and the vision for the enterprise shifted to focus purely on empowering Cambodian Women.

Green’s apprentice Chantrea received training from Ammo until she mastered the skills necessary to make and design her own jewellery, as well as the skills necessary to run a small business.

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Chantrea, 30, learned design and business skills from Ammo before founding Chan Alanka. SUPPLIED

Over the last six years, Chantrea has been learning about every aspect of the jewellery industry through her role as manager for Ammo Designs.

Chantrea was first employed selling Ammo’s jewellery at a local fair-trade market.

“Over the years, I received mentorship and training in the fields of marketing, display accounting, event management and the production side of the business. Eventually, I was promoted to manager of the company,” Chantrea tells The Post.

In November 2020 Chantrea launched her first collection in Cambodia called Chan Alanka.

“I learned the design aspect of creating new collections, and it was then that I began developing my own contemporary styles. Thanks to [Green’s] support, I am now running my own business,” she says.

Discussing her creative process for coming up with her unique designs, she says that through the years that she’s been working with Green she’s learned a lot. Some of it is trial-and-error and some of it is inspired by things she sees around her – but she always tries to be original and avoids duplicating the designs of others.

Chantrea has displayed her designs with Ammo jewellery and also sold them on consignment through some hotels and at some events.

“At the ‘Made in Siem Reap Fair’ last January in Phnom Penh, it was a pleasant surprise to get so much attention. Over those three days I earned over a thousand dollars selling my jewellery,” Chantrea says.

All of her jewellery is hand-made by her or by her younger brother Thorn Philit and Ammo-trained jewellers Nary and Sreynet.

Chantrea says that her collection of gold-plated brass earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings is inspired by the luxuriousness of 1920’s designs with geometric shapes and sleek lines.

Chantrea says they handcraft each piece using brass and recycled bullets. For all earring hooks and posts, they use sterling silver. And each design is flash-plated with gold to provide an extra shine.

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Chantrea’s brother Philit serves as the master jeweller at both Ammo and Chan Alanka. SUPPLIED

“For my first collection, I am proud to say that my brother is the master jeweller for both myself and at Ammo. So we are a very strong team that cares about making high quality products. Our prices are also reasonable, starting from $18 depending on what the customer prefers,” she says.

Chantrea recently won a $3,000 grant from Nomi Network Cambodia for being a passionate and motivated young female Cambodian entrepreneur after she sent them a proposal last month.

This grant funding will support her in developing her business and then she will in turn support and mentor five other woman entrepreneurs.

Chantrea says that the funds will be used for purchasing laptops and training their team members with the skills necessary in order to launch online sales of their products.

Green, now in England, says she was like a proud mother seeing Chantrea’s business grow and begin to achieve success independently.

“Women like Chantrea are extremely creative, resourceful, resilient and determined. These are the kind of qualities that will help Cambodia survive the pandemic.

“Ammo plans to continue working with local and international mentors to help entrepreneurs like Chantrea and others in the Cambodian artisan community identify their key strengths, set future goals and plan a strategy for how to get there,” says Green.

For more information, Ammo and Chan Alanka can be contacted via their Facebook pages: @ammojewellery and @chanalanka.

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