Hand-crafted jewellery in Yangon is in danger of disappearing forever with over 98% machine made. Ben Hopkins meets the goldsmiths determined to reverse this trend with the backing of Turquoise Mountain and Suu Foundation.
“Through reinvigorating Burma’s jewellery and craft industries, we can foster the skills and creativity of new generations of women and men across our country, and create durable jobs and livelihoods for them and their families for the years to come”.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Founder, Suu Foundation
Myanmar goldsmith Aung Chay shakes his head in mock disbelief at how, in April of this year, he almost abandoned the trade he loves to embark on a washing up job in Japan. Demand for the skills he’d learnt from his uncle had all but dried up in Myanmar, replaced by machine made jewellery mimicking designs from China and Thailand.
The only other time things had gotten so bad for Aung Chay was during the Nargis Cyclone of 2008, when he was forced to leave his home on Ramree Island, Rakhine State and search for work in Yangon. “Back then, things were even more difficult in Yangon,” says the 36-year-old father of two from his small but functional workshop in Yangon’s Yaw Min Gyi Street.
Comfortably ensconced in the same workspace amidst an array of handmade tools, semi-precious stones and pieces of gold are his brother and his brother in law U Myo Min Tun and U Thein Aung. Aung Chay was discovered by the architect, artist and designer U Hla Thaung, and as business grew, he invited his family members that had learned the trade.
“I persuaded them to continue as jewellers here in Yangon with Turquoise Mountain,” he says in fluent English, as he motions towards his compatriots.
The loss of Aung Chay to menial work in Japan would have meant another nail in the coffin for the traditional art of the Myanmar goldsmith. Thankfully, it wasn’t to be. Today, he proclaims his life’s ambition as reinvigorating the craft of handmade jewellery in Myanmar, especially amongst the young who have all but abandoned it.
With the strong backing of the Suu Foundation and actress Michelle Yeo as brand ambassador, Turquoise Mountain, a British NGO operating in Myanmar since November 2016 aims to regenerate historic areas and traditional crafts. Turquoise Mountain’s Craft’s Programme Manager Natalie Ortiz points to the foundation’s key objects as preserving culture and traditions within traditional crafts in danger of becoming lost forever. Building livelihoods for craftspeople through education and training and promoting Myanmar’s rich craft traditions both domestically and internationally as a driver for economic growth and national pride.
Most visitors to Myanmar are probably unaware that over 98% of jewellery found in the nation’s markets and stalls are machine-made. Cutting out the craftsman means more money for the middle man and suppliers and cheaper products for the buyer. It also means less soul, less love and the death of a craft with its roots in the Buddhist Pyu period, some 200 to 900 years BCE. Intricately designed gold pieces from this period have been found in and around Ramree Island, Rakhine State – the home of Aung Chay and his brother in laws and the region still considered to be the home of the goldsmith.
“The Pyu period is key to traditional Myanmar jewellery designs,” says U Hla Thaung as he produces a large sketch book full of his own finely drawn designs inked in golden hues. Many of the designs were created in collaboration with internationally renowned jeweller, UK’s ethical designer 2015, Pippa Small, and are inspired by traditional Burmese motifs such as bells and the Dharma Wheel as well as Pyu era designs such as the Filigree beads.
One drawing resembles a golden sphere no bigger than an eyeball, weaved together with threads of gold. Aung Chay’s physical manifestation is no less intricate. The golden threads reflect the flinch of an artist’s hand in the way a machine never could. Inside are five semi-precious stones: pink tourmaline, peridot, spinel, moonstone and aquamarine – beautiful stones which historically have been treated as a by-product of the process to extract more precious stones such as rubies, sapphires and jade.
These precious stones are shrouded in controversy with the vast majority traded on the international market with very little value remaining in the country. But there is a real opportunity with the semi-precious stones to keep much more of the value chain where it is needed.
Turquoise Mountain’s first line of jewellery was successfully launched at the spring fashion weeks in Paris, London and New York. Off the back of this, Turquoise Mountain has received orders from high profile international retailers from Los Angeles to Barneys New York and Tokyo.
However, back home in Myanmar there is still a long way to go. Most Myanmar people buy gold as an investment. Their concern is less about the work and design input that goes into a piece and more about the weight.
Natalie Ortiz says, “All across the country people have limited banking services so they buy in gold. Goldsmiths in Yangon say they don’t really want to waste their time producing handmade goods because they doubt people will pay fairly for the amount of work that goes into intricate handmade designs. We know already there’s a market outside Myanmar, and a domestic tourist and expat market inside that values the hand crafted nature but have yet to test the nationals”.
The hope is that domestic market sentiment will change. “Once we can sell it in country we are going to produce communication materials and a video to demonstrate to the craftsmanship, raise awareness about the importance of preserving these kind of traditional techniques and tell unique design stories. A very important part of this project is to generate a sense of pride for beautiful, high quality Myanmar crafts”
Two of several places that will shortly see the Turquoise Mountain’s work on display will be The Governor’s Residence Hotel and The Loft, with the possibility of stand-alone shops further down the line.
Another project associated with the jewellery line and also initiated by Turquoise Mountain is the promotion of ethical mining in the Mandalay Division. Most gold mines are family owned and worked on by villagers who lack licenses and are affected by the huge health and environmental damage caused by the use of the poisonous heavy metal mercury in the extraction process.
In addition, the gold mining community is keen to prove that the scope for change in the form of safety and accountability is greater than in the mining of gems such as rubies, sapphire and jade, which currently lacks transparency and is subject to strong international sanctions.
“Gold is much more straight forward. We are looking to a similar project with gems, but that’s much trickier”.
The specifics Natalie points to in the spectrum of gold mining are improving the skills and practices of miners to reduce harmful health and environmental impacts of small scale gold mining: Developing a model for responsible artisanal and small-scale mining in Myanmar, in line with international standards: Creating a skilled taskforce to help upscale and improve Artisinal and Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) practices and conditions: Establishing a transparent and responsible gold supply chain in Myanmar and lastly, drawing public attention to ASGM as a vital traditional livelihood of rural communities throughout Myanmar
Back in the workshop Thein Aung continues to enthuse over the jeweller’s craft while Aung Chay smooths the edges of a piece of jewellery using his own hand made file that appears as narrow as a toothpick. Like the skills of a violinist or painter, the methods used vary little from one generation to the next, as do the personal qualities which Aung Chay looks for in future goldsmiths.
“Number one, you must be young and interested in the fine arts, such as painting. Number two, be honest and ethical, appreciate the fact that gold is precious. Number three, be interested in handiwork – that is – the physical and technical side of how to do it, and number four, be innovative”.
These are qualities not lacking amongst Myanmar’s future generation of artists and goldsmiths. Yangon’s healthy art scene certainly fosters an appreciation of aesthetic beauty and creative expression. The challenge is to generate an industry that breathes life into history and keeps alive the legacy of the centuries old Myanmar goldsmith.