Pippa's Travel Diaries: Myanmar

I was very lucky to travel back to Myanmar in March. I first went in 2014 at the invitation of Turquoise Mountain, an organisation started by King Charles, which supports artisanal cultural heritage and the preservation of vital traditions for future generations. We believe this work truly has the power to transform lives. 

Pippa's Travel to Myanmar

As I walked to the Turquoise Mountain workshop in Yangon, the sun was hot, the trees tangled in vines and large waxy leaves, and flowers tumbled to the ground and mingled with the scents of jasmine, frangipani and scooter fumes. I passed groups of young monks out to collect an evening meal and food stalls setting up on the side of the road to sell steaming noodles, vegetables, and tea leaf salad.

The men I have grown to know over the last decade are incredibly talented artisans. They learnt goldsmithing from their families or gold masters in their villages in Rakhine state. Their skills have been passed down over centuries. This culture values gold, where gold has been sourced locally and used for thousands of years and traded across Asia. Gold is everywhere in Yangon: the gilded dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the sacred trees with their stripes of gold leaf applied to the bark, the golden buddhas, the delicate gold temple bells that chime everywhere and the monks in their gold yellow robes. 

Despite the ancient tradition of goldsmithing, 98% of jewellery now made in Myanmar is machine-made. With the pressure to make profits, more jewellery is produced using computer-assisted design and AI to create shapes and moulds, get faster production times, increase profits, and churn out pieces. Modern techniques and technology threaten ancient traditional goldsmiths' skills and once lost, they are difficult to relearn. As a result, goldsmiths are struggling to survive.

Turquoise Mountain Myanmar

Rakhine's Ramree island is one area in Myanmar that still values traditional goldsmithing. There, every part of the jewellery-making process is done by hand, seashells are used for casting, and artisans draw on Buddhist iconography and the local flora and fauna for traditional designs. 

Turquoise Mountain Myanmar

Tin Win, a master goldsmith, worked in Korea as an agricultural worker to provide for his family before Turquoise Mountain recruited him. He can transform a flat sheet of gold into a gently curling flower petal with his hands. He can persuade a small nugget of gold into a tiny peapod. Every goldsmith in the workshop has a magical touch. They draw on their spiritual beliefs and practises and use meditation as a tool for a calm and cool hand and ensure their energy is right before putting so much of themselves into their work. 

I feel more and more that environment and human rights, are strongly linked to cultural heritage. To me, they are inseparable.  When you know where you come from and have a healthy respect and pride in the past, it enables a different kind of care for the future. The depth of heritage, cultural pride and love that goes into each piece made in this workshop is priceless.

Pippa at Myanmar Workshop

My days at the workshop are spent with the team, discussing new designs and taking inspiration from the Pyu period treasures to life in the sea. We discuss the techniques, the time needed, which gems to use and their cut and polish. We also discuss life, our families, the current situation and how the new conscription laws will affect the workshop. 

Once we land on a design, I speak to Aung who draws the design to scale and gives the goldsmiths his beautiful sketches. Aung is a Burmese art scholar who deeply knows the traditions, symbolism, and meanings of the motifs in temple paintings, sculptures, engravings, textiles, and jewellery. As I watch Tin Win clean his wooden bench for work, I see him close his eyes and prepare himself for the focused concentration needed to create the magic of his work.  It is a masterly skill to see a flat drawing and imagine, with his hands and simple tools, how to turn this flat sheet of gold into a work of art. He puzzles quietly over the design challenges and how to accomplish the task. 

Tin Win Myanmar Artisan

The more I watch, I think about what this piece means as I see him give his creative energy in real time. As the piece slowly reveals itself, I feel time loses meaning while the artisan gives his creation all his care, love, and attention. I see a piece's preciousness and beauty and hope it will exist on this earth forever.

Life has not always been easy for Tin Win. I know the resilience of the artisans we work with. But when I feel the calm atmosphere in the workshop or hear the gentle chat as artisans pass their shared tools or quietly discuss a piece, I know here in this space, they are safe. Here, they can escape the outside world and feel the pride and deep satisfaction that making gives. The money they make from the pieces we sell also keeps them and their families safe and provided for. 

Turuqoise Mountain Myanmar Workshop

When I wander in London, Paris or New York and peer in the windows of glittering jewellery shops, at trays of sparkling diamonds and shiny gold, I wonder how people choose what jewellery to buy. Jewels are a celebration, an emotional gift, a symbolic tie, and a small treasure to which we become very attached. We mourn if lost and rejoice when found; we give them to those we love and hope they bring happiness. Jewels serve no other function. Yet how do we decide what to buy? What makes us choose one piece over another? Why do we emotionally respond to one piece but not another?

For me, I prioritise handmade pieces. A piece that is made with pride and love, not designed purely to be profitable, but that honours the tiny inconsistencies of the human hand and steeped deeply in legacy, heritage, and history. I design with the same philosophy. 

I hope that elements of the artisan's pride, love, culture, and tradition are conveyed through their pieces that eventually find themselves in new hands. I also hope there is satisfaction in knowing that the extraordinary skills and livelihoods of the artisans are being supported.