A young man in Kampong Speu is finding success with a range of bead necklaces that are proving popular online.
Unlike many of the Kingdom’s jewelry artisans – who utilise precious metals or bone carving – Soy Panha, also known as Chhad Reach, uses only stones dug from the soil of Cambodia to fashion his fine necklaces.
His path to success in the world of fashion accessories was not an easy one, however.
Panha, 27, told The Post that he was the son of a widow in Trapeang Ktom village of Samrong Tong district’s Vor Sor Commune. As the youngest of four brothers, his education was frequently interrupted. Poverty forced his mother to move from place to place. The family eventually settled in Phnom Penh, where his mother found work as a dishwasher.
“With a large family to feed, and a low income, times were tough. Some days, my family ate nothing by rice porridge, some days there was not enough money for even that simple meal,” he said.
In 2010, Panha was in grade 10 when his mother fell ill and was hospitalised. He began working as a motodop, or motorbike taxi driver, in order to meet the costs of feeding his mother while she was in hospital.
“In a strange way, we were fortunate at that time. My mother had been issued an ID poor card, so her medical expenses were met by the government. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know how we would have survived,” said Panha.
“Despite that, I could not afford to study, so sometimes I went to school, and sometimes I did not. When the teacher asked us to buy new books or school supplies, my friends would help me out,” he added.
In 2016, Panha took a six-month production management course, which led to him finding work in the textile sector. He worked for a company in that field before returning home to establish his own business in 2019.
He had decided that he wanted to work in jewelry, but also acknowledged that the market for carved ivory of timber was crowded, and extremely competitive. This was when he decided to focus on carving and polishing natural stones.
“I spent my first year studying the types of stones that would suit my needs. I needed to understand which ones were attractive, which ones were easy to work with – and which ones were affordable! After a year, I had a good working knowledge of the industry, and began manufacturing necklaces and bracelets and posting them online,” he said.
The stones he uses are typically dug from a depth of between three and five metres below the ground. They come is a wide array of brilliant colours, especially once polished. The stones, which can be yellow, brown, black, red, or even purple, vary in size, which some thicker than a man’s toe. Once it became known that Panha was in the jewelry trade, people began bringing them to his home and offering him the stones they had found.
Each bead can take more than an hour to polish, and some of his necklaces contain up to 20 beads.
“The stones I use come from many different provinces, including Takeo, Kampong Thom, Tbong Khmum, Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri and Preah Vihear – anywhere where they can be found,” he explained.
The market for his unique pieces is expanding. Beyond his domestic customers, demand is growing amongst members of the Cambodian Diaspora in the US, Australia and Canada, who would like to have a piece of the Kingdom with them.
“A string of beads ranges from $12 to almost $70. I am prepared to pass on my talent to any young people who are willing to learn. It is better that they have a productive skill than turn to idleness, or worse, drugs,” added Panha.