Cambodian jewelry designer inspires
Imagine having to leave your child in a foreign country to forge a new life, alone. Through ingenuity and grit, Rany Som has turned her life around and is now a successful jewelry designer in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
From outward appearances you would have no idea of the suffering this talented young mother endured and how much she overcame to build her thriving international business.
Rany is the founder of Graines de Cambodge, an international brand selling delicate statement Cambodian jewelry made from seeds and grains found in the countryside in and around Siem Reap, Cambodia. Not just a talented designer, Som is undeniably industrious, humble and charming. Here is her story.
Leaving Life & Love Behind: Rock Bottom
Rany grew up in Cambodia and moved to India in 1997 with her husband. After four years she was forced to return to her home town of Siem Reap because the marriage failed. Rany had no choice but to leave her son behind.
Her mother and father disapproved of the divorce and refused to support her. She had nowhere to live and limited job prospects. Depression and desperation became her daily reality.
One afternoon as she rode down a dusty path in the Cambodian countryside, her eyes were drawn to a sprinkling of bright red seeds under a tree – small beads of hope. She immediately recognised their potential.
How did you come across the idea of using seeds to make jewellery?
I was living in India and working in a small clothes boutique with my ex-husband. I left my husband and came back alone from India but my parents didn’t accept me. It is a cultural thing. It was difficult. I then found a job and was paid $100 a month and I had nowhere to stay and no transport so it was very difficult. I almost gave up and I was very, very sad. I was lonely. Then I came across these seeds.
Cambodian seeds and design – “Not a man’s role”
Initially Rany struggled to execute her vision. But by painful trial and error, she devised an ingenious method to drill small holes into the seeds in order to string them. She explained:
I started with the seeds and learned how to make a hole by myself. It took a long time, almost a month, to understand how to make a hole in them. I had no idea how to make a hole, so I borrowed a drill from neighbour. The seeds were very hard and I cut my hand. I couldn’t do it so I paid a guy but he only worked for me for one day. He said it was very hard, that it was a girl’s job, and didn’t want to do it.
Beads & seeds of natural selection, create statement jewelry
Selecting the right seeds is a painstaking process: each individual bead has to be the perfect size, shape and symmetry to fit in with Rany’s designs.
Initially starting with the smooth, brown Lotus, bright red Jambie and white Mary Tears seeds, Rany now uses 20 different varieties in her collection. The seeds are sourced for her by local villagers.
The seeds are also varnished with coconut and lemongrass oil, giving them a rich gloss and an aroma reminiscent of a beach holiday.
How did your jewellery designs come about?
I made a very simple string of seeds and showed it to a French shop owner in town. He liked it but said that it was too simple and he asked me to make something bigger and more creative. So I tried and tried at home… and then after that he took everything I made. After that I sold him more and saved more money and had more ideas and then sold pieces to other shops in Siem Reap.
Despite having no formal training, Som clearly has a natural talent for design. She has always had an artistic streak and loves being creative but, as the oldest of seven children, she never had the opportunity to study or indulge her creative side. Until now. She designs all the jewellery pieces herself from headrests and necklaces weighing almost seven kilograms to delicate earrings and bracelets.
Styling tip: the red necklaces, in particular would look entirely regal against a black or white silk shirt.
Was it difficult to grow your jewellery business in Cambodia?
After six months I took on one worker; a girl who knew nothing about jewellery either so we worked it out together. After that I sold my jewellery in other places but it wasn’t easy because I didn’t have money to pay for the seeds. I had to collect them myself, design the jewellery, then drill the holes and physically string the seeds. I worked all day until bedtime and, slowly, slowly [the business] grew. I don’t know how I became big. I didn’t expect it. When I look back and understand what I have done I think “Oh my God, it’s good”.
Fast forward six years and Som is “killing it”. She runs two stand alone shops in Siem Reap, wholesales to boutiques in France, Australia and Switzerland, employs over ten women from her village and is stocked in countless local hotels & market stalls.
Do you get a lot of support from the local community?
I get a lot of support from foreign people who live in Siem Reap. For my first shop, a Frenchman gave me ideas about setting up the shop and I learned from him a lot about what kind of jewellery would sell.
Are you now famous in your community because of your success?
Yes, everyone knows me!
What is it like being a successful female business owner in Cambodia?
It is good. The Cambodians aren’t impressed really. My parents are not impressed because they say that [the jewellery] is “just seeds”. They never say anything. My friends, they are impressed and are supportive. I have good friends. And, also people who live here who are artists love my work and they are impressed with what I’m doing.
Are any of your friends jewellery designers like you?
Yes. They sell different things in the market, they don’t design or have boutiques.
How do you balance raising a family with the demands of your business?
I have two children in Siem Reap and one in India. I go once a year to see him. But when I was pregnant I couldn’t go. Last year I could not go but this year I am bringing them here for Christmas. I am happy about that because last year I couldn’t go. I didn’t think I was going to be able to see my son but now I can because I started this business. So I am happy.
I met my second husband three years ago and we were married last year.
Is there much support in the community for women in business?
Yes, they have co-working spaces for artists. There is a French NGO called Artisans D’angkor which supports local artists. Also now there is the Siem Reap Art Centre Market, just across the bridge. Very cheap. They have a lot of local artists there. I can also stock my jewellery there. So, now there are a lot of creatives and artists working together. Before this there wasn’t much. More people in Siem Reap are creating.
Is it common in Cambodia for women to work?
Yes. Now it has changed. Before women married and stayed at home. They are not doing this now. They are not staying home with the kids. Now a lot of women have freedom. Women can get a job easily in town these days. Men can’t, but women can because employers know that women work harder. For example, if you have a restaurant owner they are more likely to employ a woman because they work harder and are more motivated. A lot of women are married – one of my staff is married and her husband doesn’t want her to work, but she does anyway. She pays someone to look after her children. It has changed a lot now.
Have you traveled much outside of Cambodia and India?
Yes I have been to Singapore, France and Switzerland – everywhere I sell my jewellery products. I hope to go to Australia next year.
Where do you seed yourself in the future?
In the future I would like to have a small piece of land in the countryside and to have a proper workshop with all my plants, so I can show people what I do.
Temple & Markets – online philanthropic retailer
You can order this exquisite Cambodian jewellery online at Temple & Markets. This E-store, run by Judith Treaner, retails products produced by small-scale artisans and social enterprises she meets during her travels throughout Southeast Asia. Every product has a story and each is as unique as the person who makes them.
Cambodian jewellery online
Jewellery was purchased directly from Graines de Cambodge in Siem Reap. No items were gifted.
Cambodian jewelry designer inspires