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Conversation with French-Cambodian Jeweller Ly Pisith
By Danielle Khleang
Ly Pisith is the driving creative force behind the Garden of Desire. Forced to flee Cambodia as a child, he resettled in France. In Paris, Pisith began his career as a product designer for international haute couture brands including Alain Mikli. Later he travelled to Singapore where he teamed up with Agnes Lim, a fine arts and arts administration graduate, to co-found the jewellery gallery in Pisith’s homeland, Cambodia. Garden of Desire was awarded the ASEAN Selection trophy for Cambodia at the Innovative Craft Awards 2015 and this year, it was featured in London Craft Week.
Since it opened in 2008, Garden of Desire has released collections motivated by human relationships to person and place. Inspired by historical and contemporary Cambodian arts, culture and architecture, the collections regularly draw on motifs of land, sea, and sky. Nature becomes its own character in the designs, rather than a backdrop for the human experience. Uniquely, Garden of Desire is founded on principles of community, and part of Pisith’s business philosophy has been to impart his artistic knowledge to his craftsmen while also providing enduring employment for them.
In this interview, Pisith elaborates on Garden of Desire’s growth and principles, the latest collection, Memories of Landscape, and challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
So much has changed in Cambodia since Garden of Desire opened in 2008. How has the company grown?
In 2008, Agnes and I co-founded the Garden of Desire jewellery gallery with a vision of showcasing contemporary wearable art. As its Director based in Cambodia and Singapore, Agnes handles business, marketing, and our website, and is always on the lookout for potential designers to collaborate on seasonal collections.
We have achieved several milestones since 2008, from the opening of our first shop to establishing two in Siem Reap and one in Phnom Penh. We have managed to garner the interest of several luxury hotels in Cambodia and overseas, and our international customer base is made up of a discerning crowd who has a keen eye for art, design, and workmanship. That is why we embarked on collaborations with museums and design centres for exhibitions to showcase our creations internationally including in Singapore, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and America.
Could you elaborate on Garden of Desire's founding principles?
Garden of Desire is not just about jewellery but also my evolution and wish to help the next generation in Cambodia. They are my countrymen. I want to share my experience and impart knowledge to them. Education is so important and extremely lacking in the community.
I send my staff for language classes and my artisans for further technical classes to hone their skills. Beyond work, the business, and providing enduring employment for them, my relationship with my team is like family. We offer loans with no interest to help them gain independence, like owning their own land and to take care of their families. This is the essence and my philosophy for Garden of Desire. In this challenging time, we are more closely knit than ever. The ‘Hope’ bangle, an early work, encapsulates these sentiments. An expression of hope for the future and the possibilities with new generations, the hope bangle is a conversation piece that depicts a father and mother carrying a child towards a lotus flower, a Khmer symbol of purity.
Being forced to flee Cambodia as a boy but returned as an adult, how does your creative practice connect you with your heritage?
I create pieces that are innately linked to my Cambodian roots, that celebrate our built, natural, and cultural heritage. The Khmer collection pays homage to the lost kingdom of Angkor and its ancient temples. Angkor’s monumental architectural legacy is represented by inimitable pieces inspired by Angkor Wat’s structure, sandstone walls, and tall columns.
How do you design a new collection?
I begin with conceptualisation, then moving to sketches, actual scale drawings, and discussion with my master artisan, Huoy Sothea or Soknard as he is affectionately known. Born in Kampong Cham, Soknard had his first taste in jewellery making at the tender age of 16 years old. He started training and working with me 13 years ago, labouring in the workshop over prototypes of new designs, and he now leads my team of artisans at the workshop.
The new collection, Memories of Landscapes, depicts "natural landscapes, both real and remembered." Could you speak about this?
When I started carving, I did not have a reference image. Marks and scars surfaced in my mind in an accumulation of memories of the grandeur of landscapes and a sense of place. The works speak of the energy of great things which is found in the combination of details. They are a translation of the proportion of nature’s splendor into something on a smaller scale.
It is my inclination to reflect on nature, of my love for travelling and experiencing majestic landscapes. When faced with challenges and difficulties, when you imagine yourself in the large vast surroundings, the matter at hand becomes minute. I always feel that Nature is looking back and observing us and how we counter challenges. The title speaks of “stories” told from landscapes that encompassed rock and land erosion; seas meet lands, from the ocean, storms, rain and especially time.
How is Memories of Landscape like, but also depart from, previous collections?
The concept of the collection was not planned deliberately but as a continuation of my interests. For example, in my earlier collections, the Cage series refers to man’s uneasy relationship with nature, his invasion of it, and nature’s defiance as seen in the roots emerging from the pieces’ cages. The ‘Le Temps’ (The Weather) series depicts elements of weather – cloud, rain, organisms, and ozone – to refer to the changing climate of today.
Cambodia's economy has been hit hard by the dramatic decline in tourism brought on by the pandemic. What challenges and opportunities have come from having to adapt?
It has been an extremely challenging period for us. In my 13 years in business, this has been the lowest point of my career. My business saw a steep drop in sales, and it has not recovered without incoming tourists.
Most of the businesses in Cambodia are suffering the same fate. It is heart-breaking to see the closure of shops, restaurants, hotels and many more businesses. This has greatly affected the livelihood of many Cambodians and expatriates who call Cambodia home.
My dedicated team have been with me for more than a decade and it is impossible to give up. It has always been my wish to provide enduring employment. We have kept the business afloat with our savings, but I am not sure how much longer we can depend on that.
In this crisis and moving forward, we continue designing and working in our workshop. Ultimately, I hope to continue my work in Cambodia, but we need to create more opportunities beyond Cambodia to allow more people to know about our work through establishing international connections.
Quotes have been edited lightly for brevity.