While glittery accessories made of precious metals and gemstones need to have those expensive materials mined from the Earth, Siem Reap based Graines de Cambodge instead uses a variety of seeds harvested from plants to create jewelry that is sustainable, ethical and makes a green fashion statement.
In 2011, after her divorce, Rany Som – the 34-year-old founder of Graines de Cambodge – returned from India back to her hometown of Siem Reap. Unfortunately, at the time her parents disapproved of the divorce and did not welcome her back into the family.
With no one to lean on, the precariousness of day-to-day survival evoked within her talents that she’d previously only demonstrated by alway having had an artistic streak and a love for being creative.
“After my divorce I came back empty handed and I felt ashamed and all alone. I lived on my own and I struggled to find work. I didn’t have a degree or much school education so I knew I couldn’t find a great job. I couldn’t stand to hear all the gossip about me if I’d gotten regular work because it would have disappointed and depressed me even more,” Rany says.
She came up with her seed-based jewelry at that time and sold it to foreign shops until she could buy her own shop the following year.
“Therefore, I chose to do anything that I could to isolate myself from people. And in order to have a good income without too much investment, I decided to work for myself and make things with my hands,” Rany tells The Post.
Times were tough and she started her business with just a hundred dollars to her name. After thinking things over, the idea to create jewelry using different kind of seeds came to mind when she was thinking back on her life in India.
Rany’s ex-husband is a tour guide and he brought home some seed jewelry when he was away on a trip for work. She says that it was only around five or six necklaces and they tried displaying them in their small cafe.
Those necklaces combined with the inspiration she felt when observing nature in Cambodia. She says that plants and trees come in so many varieties and are all so effortlessly beautiful with a huge variety of different looking seeds among them.
From there Rany started her collection by gathering over 20 types of seeds found growing locally and she used them to create delicate and intricate necklaces, bracelets, earrings and more using only a drill and a needle to punch holes in them.
“After finishing a few designs, I took them to try selling them at the night market as well as to some foreign booths and shops. They said it’s too simple and no one would buy it. So I started again and tried making more unique and bigger designs,” Rany says.
With no background or education in jewelry, she learned the art solely by trial-and-error. The scars on her hands and legs are reminders of her early experiences trying to drill into slippery tiny seeds with irregular shapes and surfaces.
“Ten days after my first visit I went back and showed them what I’ve got and they thought they were at least sort of interesting so they bought some, so I continued to improve my designs. Mostly through support from foreigners, I found myself owning a shop a year later in 2012,” says Rany.
The shop – Graine de Cambodge – translates from French to Seeds of Cambodia. She says she gave her shop a French name because early on many of her foreign clients were French.
She then further explains about the grain when being asked if this is keepable in the long term. When Rany first started she knew nothing about how to ensure that her creations would last instead of just rotting away through natural decomposition like some seeds do naturally.
She learned early on that if the wrong chemicals were used to protect the seeds then the jewelry could cause rashes and skin irritation to the wearers, but she finally found a safe preservation strategy.
“We have a team that makes holes in seeds. Then we need to heat the seed and then dry it. Once dried, we treat the seeds with oil. And I only chose around six kinds of seed, the ones I think are best to use because they are the most beautiful and the strongest,” Rany says.
She says the jewelry she makes is good for both casual wear and special occasions, and she even has large statement pieces that are red carpet-worthy. Her personal favorites are her long pendants made of smooth brown lotus seeds.
They gleam with a rich gloss that is achieved not from varnishing them, but rather from being rubbed with coconut and lemongrass oil, which also gives them a pleasant aroma.
Selecting the seeds to use is a painstaking process – each one has to be the perfect size, shape and symmetry to fit Rany’s designs.
The price for her jewelry ranges from $3 to $100 and decorative items like Buddhas range from $60 to $400.
Achieving the success she enjoys now wasn’t easy and Rany credits her perseverance and refusal to give up over the years. Her hard work has paid off and in the past 10 years she’s managed to expand with two more branches and about 30 total staff members in her employ.
Rany first taught the skills to make the jewelry to her managers and then lets her managers pass the skills on to the rest of the workers, most of them women.
Sadly, with the loss of tourism due to Covid-19 still devastating Siem Reap, two of her shops were forced to close.
However, Rany does still have two shops open – a new one called A & Eva Fashion where she sells 100-per-cent linen clothes and bags that she designs and that are also handmade in Cambodia, just like the jewelry she continues to sell at Graine de Cambodge.
Rany’s clients are mostly tourists, but she’s been shipping to foreign countries and also putting items on consignment at hotels in Siem Reap.
“Clients I work with abroad do wholesale, including from France, England, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the US and even Hong Kong. They all have met me and seen my shops, my products, my quality and my workshop when they traveled to Cambodia. And even then though they’re back in their own country now, we keep in contact and do business,” Rany says.
Although the situation in her remaining shops remains tough, Rany says she still hopes to be around when tourism – and Siem Reap’s economy with it – eventually makes its big comeback.
“These two shops of mine are like my babies. I will try my best to keep them open no matter what. I know the jobs are also important for my few remaining staff members,” she says.
Lately, Rany has been living in Thailand with her new family and travelling back and forth to Cambodia, at least when the borders were open.
“With the current Covid crisis, our business suffers from the lack of customers and tourists in the country. I wish I could improve my business digitally and make up the losses through online sales. Customers cannot come to my country or to my shop, so I wish I could reach out to the customers anywhere in the world and do online sales and export more of my products around the globe,” Rany says.
Rany also has a dream of creating a space where people can learn about the process of making jewelry from seeds.
“In the future, I would like to have a small piece of land in the countryside and to have a proper workshop and a garden where I grow all my plants, so I can teach people how to do what I do.”
For more information customers can contact Rany’s shops on Facebook: @aevafashion and @grainesdecambodge or go to her website: https://grainesdecambodge.com/