Ly Pisith was just eight years old when his parents and siblings were taken away by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. He would never see them again.
“We were relatively high society. I had had a really good education, but when we had to leave our home, my father told me, ‘Forget everything we have taught you. It’s not real. What’s going to happen now is real.’ It disturbed me greatly,” says Ly. “I didn’t know how terrible war could be. I tried to adapt. I lived on the streets before being sent to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then was sent to France to study. I was very alone, always alone.”
In a rented attic room in Paris’ 14th arrondissement, overlooking a garden and neighbouring rooftops, he would fight many internal battles throughout the five years he lived there while in his twenties. “I had so much anger in me,” he recounts. “I was in a strange society with a new culture and language. The only way I could think of to handle the situation was to try to understand it, so I studied their music and art. I discovered opera. I had no money but would queue up for half a day outside concert halls and buy spare tickets sold for cheap 15 minutes before the curtains rose. There’s so much big emotion in opera, and even though I couldn’t understand the words, I could feel the music, big and often sad.”
His words are especially surreal in pewter boutique Loyfar at Bangsar Village II in Kuala Lumpur, where light calls out glints of filigreed and hammered metal in a space infused with serenity. Included here are Ly’s own jewellery, silver beautifully worked to create a sense of movement and occasionally adorned with quiet stones. Jewellery-making was a craft he dabbled in in Paris, when the skies were grey and heavy with rainclouds and he was confined indoors. Too poor to lavish his then girlfriend with gifts, he began making pieces with wires and beads. He was not unused to such work, carving toys from wood as a child to indulge an imagination fuelled by books. Keeping his hands busy allowed his mind to travel freely and it wandered from memories of Cambodia to pleasant daydreams of destinations unknown.
Design became the core of his career, spent at a clutch of celebrated design labels such as Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck. A job sent him to Singapore and, so close to the home of his boyhood, he resolved on two decisions. The first was to take a sabbatical to pursue his passion for jewellery and the second was to expel the fear and anger burning within him by returning to Cambodia. Facing his demons required the full reservoir of courage he had built across a lifetime of struggle and survival, but the price was worth the peace he eventually found.
Siem Reap is today headquarters to Garden of Desire, the 10-year-old jewellery studio run by Ly and his artisans, young and hungry youths whom he found on the streets and trained as apprentices. Silver is his favourite metal to work with — “I liked that it was used to kill vampires and werewolves in horror movies, and kings in the olden days used silver spoons to detect poison as it tarnishes upon contact,” he says — and his signature design brevity speaks volumes. Many pieces tell a story. A silver cuff bracelet outlines the silhouette of a father and mother carrying a baby towards a lotus flower. This tale of devotion almost pulses with dynamism in the clever slants of the figures, and the form of the baby is left hollow, as seen from the underside, to represent an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
“I call this piece Hope,” says the award-winning designer, tracing the bracelet. “The lotus flower is a symbol of purity, despite growing in murky water. You can grow from blackness into something beautiful. I have been an orphan since I was eight years old, and this happened to millions of people of my generation. This piece expresses the hope of Cambodia’s new generation.”
Motifs are not restricted to the floral. Garden of Desire has collections depicting everyday life and sights, from farmers toiling in the fields to grand Angkorian temples. Two pairs of squared earrings in the glass cabinet at Loyfar, where his work is exclusively stocked in Malaysia, bear Afghan lapis lazuli and Cambodian chalcedony respectively. He prefers the muted grace of such stones, instead of the ostentatious sparkle of brighter gems, believing that they better emphasise the wearer’s energy and spirit, rather than distract from it.
“Garden of Desire is the garden I wish I had known, that I now wish to grow,” says Ly. “I can’t erase the past but I can move on. It represents my struggle to love my country again, and I do now, even the Khmer people. The garden isn’t just about jewellery, though. It’s also the youngsters we tend to through the studio, many of whom now have their own families. I will always carry sadness with me but I have found peace. And in that, I have found freedom.”
This article first appeared on Aug 6, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.