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Cambodia revives old bullets and steps out of the shadows of war

The beautiful thing about scrap is that you can use your imagination to create practically anything. A Cambodian artist is currently undertaking a unique mission: turning bullets into jewellery. 

Cambodia was marked by aggression, corruption and armed conflicts in the 60s and 70s. You will have undoubtedly heard of the Killing Fields; a number of sites across the country where more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime. That period of bloodshed still counts as a dark chapter in Cambodia’s history – one that left its marks on people for generations to come.

Ever since, citizens have been digging up remnants of war, often with their bare hands. There have been many cases of farmers reclaiming the agricultural land and finding dozens of old bullets at a time. They did what they thought was best; they melted down the bullets to create farming tools like rice scythes – and even cow bells.

Thorn Chantrea uses war scrap as valuable building blocks for her jewellery workshop.

Today, the country is home to about 15 million people, all of them wanting to make the most of life. Waste pickers still scavenge the land for war ammunition, which they recognise is a rich source of scrap metal. A more hopeful story centres around the young artist Thorn Chantrea (30). She saw the opportunity to recycle recovered bullets into ‘roaring twenties’-inspired accessories with geometric prints and shapes.

Her business Chan Alanka is located in downtown Siem Reap, where she takes others under her wing, patiently teaching them how to rework used ammunition into polished, high-end items of beauty. This way, the spent brass cartridges make a fashion statement, boost employment while also giving a piece of Cambodian history a new lease of life. 

Chantrea’s crew members first receive a six month internship; during which time they learn all about metals, soldering, sculpting and cutting techniques and how to create a finished product. Together, they have made a collection of gold-plated brass earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings.

That goes to show the hidden sparkle resting inside cold, forgotten, decades-old war scrap. And, to me personally, it shows that life is what you make of it.

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