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The Bells of Burma

Flying over a carpet of forest from Bangkok to Yangon in Burma for my second trip with Turquoise Mountain I wondered at how the country would be digesting the recent election results – a strong victory for Aung San Suu kyi’s democratic party.

At last an end to the violent military dictatorship after over 40 years. This was an historic moment for the country and I was excited to see how people were feeling.

I arrived to a hot, tropical evening and into the busy traffic of the fast growing Yangon. Passing the Irrawaddy River with its fresh breeze, on its wide, slow meandering journey, I passed monks and nuns in their rainbow robes of pinks and oranges along the way and devotees clasping armfuls of hot pink lotus flowers, which they would later offer slowly walking towards the twinkling lights of the shrines in the distance.

The next morning, I went to the workshop to discuss the new collection. I was lucky enough to meet Terence Tan who has written a book on ancient Pyu design in Burma, a book which would be very influential for our first collection. Part of the aim of the project was to revive Burmese design, so drawing influence from the proto-historic, very fertile creative period in Burma seemed like a good starting point.

The designs from 2nd century BC to 11 century AD are simple and strong, and depicting of the world around them. They feature animals and plants of The Ancient World.

The same techniques for gold work are still used today, but they are slowly disappearing and are now only to be found in the villages, for in the cities the demand is for a “Thai” style of jewellery making, one which is gem heavy, very ‘bling’, a more factory produced, rather than hand-made style.

Turquoise Mountain had helped to find a small workshop of Rakhine goldsmiths (an ethnic group in the west of Burma) who still work by hand. Sitting on work benches, wedged between the house alter, full of lights and offerings for Buddha and the house spirits, we discussed the concept of the collection.

I was starting with a series of bells. Burma struck me as a very ‘feminine’ place, the soft mountain, the lush fertile land, and everywhere the gentle sound of bells. In the morning and afternoon nuns and monks went out to collect food from the villagers ringing their hand bells to announce their arrival, the temples were a chorus of bells, calling the gods to listen to the prayers being offered. Bells even had a significant meaning for the animals. I was told that each elephant has a special bell made for them, the sound dependent on the mix of alloys and the shape, each distinctive so as the animal moves through the forest everyone knows whose elephant it is. I loved the idea of the individual sound, a voice for each animal, so the starting point for the collection was bells. Around the wrist in the ears and on the neck, each set with a Burmese Pink Tourmaline.

The Dharma wheel, an image seen in Temples in architecture was next. Representing in its circle, the perfection of the Buddha’s teachings, the rim is the meditative concentration and mindfulness that hold the practice together. The hub represents moral discipline, and finally the spikes represent the penetrating insights.

There are also the Pyu inspired filigree balls with moonstone’s set inside to move freely and the golden rock piece inspired by the ‘kyaiktiyo Pagoda’ in Southern Burma. This famous pilgrimage site is where a huge granite bolder perches on a hair from the Buddha’s head, sitting precariously on a hillside and seemingly defying gravity. We have made a tiny one using Burmese amber to represent this extraordinary site.

At the end of my trip I reflected on the recent history of the country and the response to the elections. Suspicion, anxiety and fear had become perfectly natural. Of course it will take time for a country who has suffered so much to really believe in the change they have brought about. It is an exciting moment for the country about to be reborn.

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