I have travelled many times to beautiful Myanmar, working with the Turquoise Mountain Foundation at their workshop in downtown Yangon. On my first morning there when I visited last, I thought how lucky I am as I made my way down the narrow streets, winding past a line of nuns out collecting their daily horns and squealing tyres. From little girls, often orphans brought to the convents, to older ladies who have devoted their lives to prayer and meditation, the layers of pink toned robes and their life choice completely fascinate me.
As I passed the now familiar noodle stall on the road with six different kinds of noodles and mountains of vegetables waiting to be cooked in the large hot pots, I felt so pleased to be back, to work on the 5th collection with Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar. The workshop has grown from two men when we started in 2015, to now ten men and three girls who are learning the trade.
The artisans are mostly hailing from Rakhine, the western troubled state, the poorest state in Myanmar with a predominantly agricultural culture that is already being adversely affected by climate change and where unemployment and lack of opportunity are rife. At this troubled time in the country, we feel it is more important than ever to ensure people have jobs and see opportunity and hope. It is a creative business where we emphasise a celebration of diversity and draw inspiration from all the ethnic groups and traditions in Myanmar. We hope that opening the conversation and encouraging appreciation for other cultures through the process of design can help transform the fear and suspicion of the other into unity. I work closely with Tin Win who is a master goldsmith from Rakhine. Tin Win has worked with gold since he was a young man and although he had to, like so many others in Rakhine, take a labouring job in Korea for a while to feed his family he came back to Yangon and was introduced to the TM project and is now their head of the workshop. A serious man with a very contemplative and meditative stance with his work, he sees the deep concentration and focus on his gold work as very akin to his meditation practice which is a daily part of his life. He is very proud of what he does and what he creates.
On this trip, we are working with a collection of spinal from Mogkok, where the world's most famous rubies come from. We are using them in what is locally called the Fairy cut which means uncut and unpolished just these perfect double octahedron-shaped crystals in tones of red, orange and lotus pink.
We are also working on a short film on the making of a piece of jewellery for an exhibition of Turquoise Mountain and the Smithsonian who again are partnering up to create an exhibition on the role of craft in today's work, the time of the 4th industrial revolution - what a vital and vibrant development tool craft can be. We are making an opening gold lotus flower...
We manage to laugh and chat through the filming of our creative partnership - being in front of the camera is not something either of us feels at ease with but it was wonderful working with the Turquoise Mountain team and the young talented Burmese director Moe Myat.
After finishing our discussions on the designs, going over drawings, sizes and choosing stones, working with the team of goldsmiths on samples and seeing that they were all comfortable with the designs, I left for Delhi to begin my next adventure. I met my twins 5 years old Mac and Madu in Delhi as well as my 17-year-old nephews' twins Art and Theo who had kindly come during their half term to make a film of the work we do in Jaipur. We made our way to Jaipur and bundled into Tuk Tuk's in the late summer heat and began our Indian adventure.
It was wonderful to introduce India to my nephews who were on their first trip, all the artisans I work with - Om the stone cutter and Sushil the goldsmith and everyone else were delighted to meet more of my family. We spent a week racing around on motorbikes, bicycles, Tuk Tuks, and jeeps getting a feel of the country, from farms outside the city with buffalo and small desert herds of mottled goats, the prettiest palaces, the workshops and gem dealers and gold sellers, the stone markets and narrow bursting lanes of Jahori bazaar.
We whizzed about with Ramesh the Tuk Tuk driver and managed to design our next collection for fall winter 2018... using old mogul style cut luscious African aquamarine, and rich warm jewel Afghan amethyst and Burmese peridot wrapped in warm gold.
I love India for its massive life force, its stunning, still and mesmerising natural world of forests and deserts and the people who inhabit these remote hard places to the cities with their tumbles of buses, cars, elephants, camel carts and zipping rickshaws, the choking pollution and night scent of jasmine that manages to seep through the tangles of city smells, the palaces, tents and shacks that are homes to such a diversity of humanity.
To read more about the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Myanmar, click here.