Bracelets, Not Bullets: Craftworks Cambodia

How can something so ugly be so beautiful? These bracelets scream ‘ethical chic’ but their story is actually a very dark one–they’re constructed from bullet casings and bombshells that still remain from the country’s vicious war that began in the 1970s.

It’s been almost three decades since war ripped Cambodia apart, but the country is still littered with the debris of destruction. Craftworks Cambodia is a small firm that employs six home-based artisans to create jewellery out of bullet casings and bombshells. By melting them down and creating truly stylish, unique jewelry, these artisans are able to take the remaining fragments of the country’s horrific history and turn them into something beautiful.
The social enterprise was founded by Keang Sapbay, a Cambodian refugee who fled the country in 1984 during the Khmer Rouge Regime and later returned with the mission of helping home based artisans and marginalised citizens make a living through handicraft design.

Keang says “There is a strong statement of peace and environment for Cambodia. Cambodian people don’t want or need to see war in Cambodia again. We would like to see our children go to schools, get a higher education, and better living. The jewellery shows a creative reaction to violent conflict, a way of reminding us of the impressive strength that lies within so many.”

The enterprise helps families, too. Chantha  Thoeun,  the chief artisan who has helped to train the other five, learned to make jewellery when he was 14, and he clearly loves his work.  “I am able to work from home; I have more freedom and independence. I also have more time to take care of my daughter. We are very proud of our goods being sold local and international markets. It is unbelievable!” he says.

What’s also unbelievable is that formerly deadly weapons can be neutralised into such chic pieces–chunky bracelets, delicate earrings and statement necklaces.  But Craftworks Cambodia doesn’t just help neutralise deadly weapons–it also works to help those with deadly  diseases.

AIDS is still rife in the country, and while medical care is offered free to the poorest sufferers, there is still a social stigma around the illness–workers are often shunned if they leave their jobs for doctor’s appointments or due to illness. Craftworks Cambodia consequently opened further opportunities for those stricken with AIDS by training the afflicted in handicraft skills–mainly making bags, wallets and jewellery from silk, recycled materials and rubber.  The company also helps those who are disabled by employing them to make soaps, recycled paper and other products, all from their own homes.

It’s incredibly inspiring to see how a once war-torn nation is rebuilding itself by sharing work, skills and environmental awareness and ingenuity. The American writer Chuck Palahniuk said: “Only after disaster can we be resurrected.”  This could well be the motto behind Craftworks Cambodia.

Chere Di Boscio

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