Making jewellery to celebrate culture and heritage
No stranger to hardship, Ly Pisith has a striking past.
Having fled his home country as a child to escape the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, Pisith was brought to France, where he spent many lonely years in a foreign land where the culture was alien to him. He had lost his family. Full of anger and tangled emotions, Pisith instinctively sought art as a way to connect to the world around him, drawn to Paris’ swelling operas and roving design exhibitions.
Inspired by art, he later trained as a product designer at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie in Bordeaux and the prestigious Beaux Art de Paris. Pisith’s jewellery designs began from a desire to create, and they became a very personal way for him to channel the complex feelings held towards his violent past and homeland, into creating hauntingly beautiful pieces of jewellery, each telling a unique story filled with emotion.
Today, he has grown a small team of Cambodian artisans and opened three boutiques in Cambodia for a small, but thriving, brand called Garden of Desire. We checked in with Pisith to better understand his design inspirations, and he shares how he understands his cultural roots and what it means to have found, and perhaps created, a home.
Handcrafted Grey Sandstone bangle with Sterling Silver 92.5
Part of the KHMER Collection, this bangle represents a series of works recalling the vast carvings in the ancient temples of Angkor. Beyond the intricacies and beauty of the creation, Pisith wishes to remind people that the riches of the Khmers lie in their own backyard, and not in the endless pursuit of new material goods.
Your designs are a way for you to weave something from the troubled feelings for your past. When did this emerge and become important for you to pursue?
After graduating, I worked for years as a product designer for Alain Mikli, Starck and other haute couture international brands in Paris. By chance, my career took me to Singapore. Located so close to Cambodia, it wasn’t long before I began to be filled with thoughts about my early childhood and first home. In 2007, I chose to return to Cambodia. I discovered so much about my country that intrigued me. I learnt new things, fell in love with the old and found myself in a new chapter of life.
I wanted to tell stories about this country and its history, and the environment and its people, through silver to help bring back Khmer silver jewellery-making but with a contemporary expression.
In 2008, I set up a workshop staffed with a team of young artisans and founded a boutique in Siem Reap.
What do you hope your designs and jewellery do for you and for others who wear them?
I am often asked how Garden of Desire came about. The answer is not an easy one. It’s a story both of the gallery and my evolution. Art and design, for me, have to provoke and be unconventional. When I create my unique pieces, it is not so much to fulfil the desires of others or make something pleasing for anyone. I have a story, my story, to tell or to share a point of view. People from varied backgrounds who then pick them up have a connection with or are able to relate on different levels to the story encapsulated in a work of jewellery art. At times, they create their own interpretations and connections. They see what I don’t see.
Connecting to your Cambodian heritage and personal past has been instrumental in your craft practice. Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?
Cambodian heritage is so rich, yet fragile.
There is a lot of reflection and growth as a culture and as a people, and I am still learning from it. People and their evolution in an era of globalisation will always remain an important source in my creation. Heritage and culture are rooted, but we are always progressing and transforming with the times.
Key to the moon necklace and sketch
Wishes and aspirations are the heart of the DREAM Collection. Its pieces express quiet contemplation and positive sentiments leading to peace and acceptance.
A work of whimsy, the Key to the moon necklace playfully proffers the key to the secrets and stories of the moon, a source of wonder and magic in much of Khmer folklore.
Back when you first started in France, what inspired you to create jewellery and who were some of your influences?
The same approach and philosophy applies to work in product design as well as the craft of jewellery making, or any creative process. To see real masterpieces in France then was a great eye-opener. My interests spanned art and design, architecture, music and opera. I was often intrigued by the works by Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry and other great masters of art.
I observed people and their behaviour, habits, lifestyle and evolution. All these informed how I create and how I understand.
Given your varied upbringing, part in Cambodia and predominantly in France, have you experienced having to negotiate with a certain aesthetic sense or method of doing things that might be ‘French’ or ‘Cambodian’?
I don’t think I have struggled because I have always remained open and curious. I maintain a curiosity of the world. One important thing that has emerged distinctively from my time in France is understanding attention to details. That has been a constant reminder and feature in my design work.
Assembling carved sandstone with silver components.
As each section and piece of jewellery is handcrafted, the various parts need to be fitted accurately to the body, just like a fitting during tailoring, fine-tuning and adjusting until the right fit is achieved.
What is a piece that you feel closest to?
My Sandstone with Silver series, part of the Khmer Collection, remains one of my favourite collections. It emulates the essence of my design and identity. It holds my hope and beliefs. It’s also about fragility and growth.
Handcrafted Grey Sandstone bracelet with Sterling Silver 92.5
The KHMER Collection recalls the ancient temples of Angkor. It reminds us that the riches of the Khmer lie in our own backyard – in a culture steeped in history and culminating in the ruins of the Angkor.
From your practice, can you describe what Cambodian Design is?
My take on Cambodia Design is… taking on traditions with contemporary expressions. It is a transformative process, a play of creating harmony with odds, different textures, shapes, lines, forms and unusual materials, all these coming together.
What was it like bringing your practice back to Cambodia and opening your own studio?
It was definitely a very challenging journey in silversmithing with local artisans and revitalising old artistic traditions. I had to train my artisans on a new way of seeing things. They had the skills but could not see the reasons for my designs. Now a decade has gone, and my artisan is a master in his own right and trains the younger ones, a new generation of crafters.
Soknard – Our master artisan
This could have been a temporary project. What made you stay and commit to rooting your practice in Siem Reap?
My work family. They have been with me since the beginning. I have never forgotten where I came from and I do want to give back and help in my own ways. It has been a long process, growing and nurturing my team. Our relationship with one another goes beyond work. Like I said, they’re family. We are running a really small company and workshop. With time, they have gained expertise and we continue this learning relationship with one another.
What are your thoughts on where Garden of Desire is now? Did you think you would be here, 10 years ago?
I feel that I have a greater responsibility towards my team. I used to be like a nomad, never staying or working at one place for an extended period of time. I did not have great plans at the beginning; I just wanted to create.
Ten years on, I am proud of our achievements and to see how my people have grown, maturing both in culture and mindset. Education is so important.
What can we look forward to from you, as well as your team?
The creative process will continue and we hope to bring our creations onto the international stage. Perhaps a jewellery exhibition in future. Collaborations with other international jewellery designers are also in the works. My wife, Agnes, who is an independent art curator and jeweller, has joined us as director and is based in Cambodia and Singapore. She has expanded the design team by collaborating with guest designers to create seasonal collections.
She finds constant inspiration in the world of jewellery art, and she is dedicated to fusing contemporary design with traditional craftsmanship to create jewellery that is distinctive in style, meticulously wrought and that speaks to the heart.
Do you think you might move to another city in the future?
The base for my work will always be here with my work family in Cambodia.
I travel a lot but am never at one place for an extended period of time.
Garden of Desire has just set up its stockist at Raffles Hotel Singapore, Raffles Spa.
You can follow its collections and find a larger catalogue of Pisith’s works here.