Craftsmanship Is Art That Tells A Story — A Story that Takes Years To Tell
Outside of Saigon on a nondescript hidden alley between a cafe and pool hall live craftsmen Dung & Diep.
Kitchen, living and work areas overlap — 3 foot high smoky quartz stones line the living room, containers of soft pink Agat fill the space below the kitchen stairs and the workshop, consisting of tools scattered across two worn wooden desks, conjoin these spaces.
Dung & Diep’s love story is as much intertwined in their craft as our love is ingrained in their creations.
They met in Saigon while studying under Vietnam’s most renowned gemologist. While Dung ushers their children to and from school, Diep explains she comes from a family of gold traders. She’s been in the business since the age of 16, yet her strong southern accent and slight lisp deter her from communicating with outsiders. She’s never left Saigon and rarely ventures out of her neighborhood.
From a humble background with fewer opportunities, Dung left Vietnam as a boat refugee during the War. After moving to and from various refugee camps in SE Asia, he was repatriated penniless to Vietnam. I asked how Diep felt when Dung left Saigon during the War. There seemed to be a mutual understanding it was the right decision for his future. They reunited after he returned to Saigon and began to build their new life together.
Despite Diep’s family disapproval of Dung’s economic background, their love for each other, their craft, and the healing power of gemstones created their life together…and later, 6 children.
Their children scurry in and out of the living room, navigating effortlessly passed piles of gemstones, as our design and production sessions extend throughout the afternoon and night. When LanVy is not in town, they are incredibly generous with their time and patience in explaining the technical vocabulary that extends beyond my understanding in Vietnamese.
Roles vary between husband and wife. Dung takes the children to their various school activities, while Diep handles accounting and business matters. When Dung returns home, Diep catches him up on our requests and he gets to work leading the craft production.
Dung and Diep’s challenges in working their craft is similar to that of many of the artisan groups incubated by FASHION4FREEDOM: Changes in consumer demands, industrialization of handmade to machine made and isolation from the market is leading to the disappearance of their craft.
In 2003 while consulting for Vinatex (Vietnam’s state owned conglomerate of garment & textile factories), LanVy Nguyen, Founder of F4F, first met the master gemologists. Twelve years later, Dung and Diep still live in the same house, yet their workshop was forced to close because of limited market access. Where 22 staff once diligently cut and polished stones to create jewelry is now where men drink cheap beer and play pool in a fluorescent-lit pool house.
After testing a myriad of silversmiths throughout Vietnam, we discovered that Dung & Diep are the only people who can look at a design on paper (often napkins, or the scrap paper the banh mi lady uses to wrap sandwiches) and transform the design into a piece of high quality jewelry.
As master craftsmen, Dung and Diep are able and willing to create a sample from scratch, unlike many producers who find it much easier and more profitable to copy a product already made. Because many producers often lack the ability to translate design into reality, they don’t want to risk investing time and money developing a new product without the financial security of an order. However, the time we spent learning about the history of Dung and Diep and their skill has created a relationship of mutual trust and their willingness to transform our ideas into reality.
Producing a piece of jewelry requires the silver to be melted, shaped and then welded to form. Creating a sample means numerous iterations and due to the soft nature of pure silver, hours turn into days, to consciously cut and weld the silver to meet the desired angle and shape.
Dung & Diep are attracted to the metaphysical properties and healing powers of gemstones. They look at each stone with its unique property and energy that imbues a sense of meaning in each piece of jewelry they create. The exterior of each stone is jagged, rough and earth brown. Yet what lies beneath the surface is never known until it is cut to reveal the interior color, shape and lines that evolve naturally with the ebb and flow of the soil.
Vietnam’s past is found in its lasting craftsmanship. Preservation of the old is through the conscious design of processes and products that have demand in the future. F4F identifies top craftsman as living national treasures, and is on a mission to utilize responsible trade and commerce to insure their techniques pass on in perpetuity.
Profiling Fashion4Freedom’s heritage artisans, creators and collaborators for conscious consumers to better understand the hands, history and skills behind the goods that make up the global supply chain.
FASHION4FREEDOM aims to bridge the gap between artisans and the industry to ensure social responsibility in manufacturing while preserving traditional skills.