The Belda family are famous Prague jewellers who are the only ones certified to oversee the upkeep of the Czech crown jewels; recently, the youngest designer in the family, Viktorie Beldová, made headlines for a crown completed as part of her Masters thesis at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design. She was inspired by the story of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, who grew up in Prague in the 1960s. Her initial aim was to eventually gift the monarch with the crown, which proved more difficult than expected.
“In the beginning, I wanted to make a crown that was the basic idea. I was in a bar, talking with my friend Jiří Přibyl, fellow designer, and was telling him that I wanted to design a crown for my diploma work and he told me that he knew there was an actual king who spoke Czech. He didn’t know of which country but the next day I googled the information and learned that it was the king of Cambodia. So I began to do research and bought tickets to Cambodia.”
“Well no, it wasn’t that quick. The idea was quite easy at the beginning and it was supported by my professors at UMPRUM, who know my family’s history.”
I also remember being surprised that the monarch had lived here as a boy and young man in the 1960s when I heard the story way back when…
“He moved to Czechoslovakia as a boy, he studied basic school and high school, he lived with the family of a Czech teacher at the basic school later he studied at DAMU, the academy for the performing arts. For me it was important that he had his Czech connection, I needed one for my graduate work, it would not be possible otherwise.”
It is a well-known fact that your family, you are all jewellers, is solely responsible for the upkeep of the Czech crown jewels, so was that also one of the inspirations for your project?
“That was one of the aspects as well of course, this family connection. But the first idea was just a crown. I didn’t know for whom. It could have been for the Czech Miss beauty contest!” (laughs)
“Much of the design was inspired by Cambodian culture. At the same time, it is also a work of imagination.”
Are there fundamental differences when thinking about a crown to pieces of jewellery like a necklace or a bracelet or brooch?
“Yes, I would say it is different. If you make a simple piece of jewellery you are probably not working with any symbolism, I mean, you can and I do, but with the crown it is far more likely and necessary. Jewellery is still just jewellery and you produce more than one copy whereas with the crown there is only one, or two, since my prototype is made of brass. But if the real one were made for me to give to the king, I would like it to be made from gold. I didn’t do it in gold for my Masters because there was no way I could afford it!”
In some of the interviews which you did, you mentioned that there was a great deal of symbolism and Cambodian-inspired elements in your design, including the Bo tree under which the Buddha experienced enlightenment…
“Yes, all of it was. The shapes, the leaves, reflect the Bohdi tree, there is the shape of a waterlily and a ribbed section representing the Naga, a seven-headed snake, so there is quite a lot of stuff. At the same time, it is a work from my imagination so it also really different from what they had and the artistic tradition in Cambodia. It is simple, it has no pattern on it which is not common there because they are used to a lot of shapes, patterns and colours.”
So more ornamental. So basically you developed this prototype for your degree, which is now on view at a Prague gallery. What other elements were important? This crown is brass, but I imagine it should be lighter in gold. Is weight a factor?
“Certainly it shouldn’t weigh ten kilos! On the other hand, it is ceremonial. It wouldn’t be worn for more than short periods of time, not like in fairy tales!”
Let me ask a little bit differently: presumably, the crown needs to be designed to look good on any kind of face or shape of head.
(laughs) “Yeah, that is true, but this was trickier and a little bit of a problem. When I spoke to the Cambodian king’s cousin, who I communicated with over this matter, he made clear it would not be appropriate for anyone else to have ever had the crown on their head. The idea is that if I were ever to have been granted an audience with the king, that the crown be unworn, that it should only ever touch his head. So the answer is, I actually never tried it.”
We are slowly approaching what was the ‘big'' question, which was how to gift the king with the crown, based on your idea… How far did you get?
“It is probably not the result that our media wanted to hear. (laughs) Basically, I have now given up! That was the reason why I put together the exhibition. I was a little bit sad and had tried very hard, communicating with the cousin, and following advice as closely as possible. I had help from the Czech embassy, they liked the idea, but it didn’t go much further. I did get a response from the Palace, who were able to connect me with the monarch’s cousin and he helped me to ensure there were no mistakes with the history or symbolism and he was a great help.
“I met with him every day when I was in Cambodia more than a week and really consulted the matter of the crown. So it is not that I got nowhere but it is really difficult. The protocol is really strict and you can’t just show up and say ‘Hi, I’m this girl from the Czech Republic and I want to make you a crown’! On the other hand, because of the exhibition, I met some people and got some new ideas, so maybe there will be some way forward. But I’m not sure.”
I guess it is very sensitive, given issues such as national identity and protocol to say accept a crown from another state, if I can put it that way.
“Yeah and that is a little bit the crux of the problem. There are two options or avenues to pursue in giving a crown, one, which is good, as an expression of great admiration and inspiration, the biggest gift that the state could bestow and then there is the second which is tougher. It cannot be interpreted as one state treating another as a kind of vassal. That is a very difficult issue, given colonial history. It is a very sensitive topic.”
“The protocol is really strict and you can’t just show up and say ‘Hi, I’m this girl from the Czech Republic and I want to make you a crown’!” (laughs)
What has been the reaction since the crown has gone on display?
“Very positive. More than in school! The exhibition was not just about the crown but much more. But no one really noticed: I guess the crown is an attractive subject.”
Has the publicity also been good for your family’s firm?
“Yes, of course, that was an aspect I thought about, I realised it could have an effect. I won’t lie, of course publicity is important. Without it you don’t get the work. And of course my family makes jewellery, so publicity is always good.”
To come back to Cambodia… what moments were you left with from your time there?
“I really fell in love with Cambodia and plan to return this year. My favourite place that I visited was probably Kampot. There was a lot of tradition there, these small villages. The people maybe had little, some chickens or a cow, but they looked happy. So that was one of my favourite places to visit.”
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