The Innovators: Coco Rocha's Jewelry for Senhoa

We were already excited about supermodel Coco Rocha's gorgeous new jewelry collection -- chains! studs! Swarovski crystals! -- but when we learned that each piece was hand-crafted by a survivor of exploitation in Cambodia, we were even more intrigued.

Made in collaboration with Senhoa -- a charitable organization that provides practical skills and education to survivors of human trafficking -- each of the seven pieces in Rocha's capsule collection is designed to empower both wearer and jewelry-maker. A true innovator of the fashion world, we asked Rocha to tell us about the process of designing her first jewelry pieces, and how she and Senhoa are making a tangible difference in the lives of Cambodian women.

How did the Senhoa project come about initially?
I first found out about Senhoa at my wedding in France last summer. Lisa, the founder of Senhoa, was on hand as the girlfriend of one of my videographers and she gifted me a beautiful Senhoa bracelet, which I wore the first day of my wedding.

Lisa told me the story behind the making of the jewelry and Senhoa. From ages 4 to 19, these girls are rescued from brothels and human trafficking in Cambodia. Most of them do not have a family to return to, as it was their families who actually sold them into slavery in the first place. The girls receive a full education and rehabilitation in the Senhoa program and, when they turn 15, they are offered a job in jewelry-making where they are paid better than school teachers. ... Following my meeting with Lisa, I tried to wear Senhoa pieces and mention them whenever I could, at events or on the red carpet. Earlier this year, we decided that a jewelry collaboration was probably the best way I could lend my voice to the cause, and really the whole project was a natural fit.

Just to provide some context for the collection, can you tell us a bit more about the human trafficking problem in Cambodia?
When you hear some of the facts and figures, you realize the extent of the problem in Cambodia is staggering. Thirty-five percent of all prostitutes in Cambodia are under the age of 18, some as young as four years old. Of them, 40 to 50 percent are HIV positive. These girls endure the most miserable living conditions you can imagine -- abuse, beatings, inadequate food and sleep and little to no protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

Did you collaborate with the Cambodian jewelry-makers to come up with designs that would be relevant for a fashion audience?
Well, I was familiar with what the girls were already making because I had been wearing Senhoa pieces at red carpet events for a year. They make very pretty pieces and are amazing at bead work ... After sending a lot of sketches back and forth over email, I flew out to L.A. to put the jewelry pieces together myself. I'm glad I did, because I got to experience firsthand the intricate and painstaking work the girls put into this jewelry -- I spent a whole day beading just one piece! We used high-quality materials in the jewelry, like Swarovski crystals, which not only add to the beauty of the product but help instill a feeling of self-worth in these girls who are now associating themselves with materials of high value. Once my design prototypes were finished, they were flown to Cambodia along with Jenny, Senhoa's creative director, who teaches the girls how to construct these pieces. I think one of the great things about this jewelry line is that every hand that worked on it, from design to production, is deeply invested in its success.

How will the girls benefit from acquiring jewelry-making skills?
Jewelry-making provides these young women with a safe and secure job so that they can gain economic independence. In a way, it's also a medium of art therapy. The girls are trained to produce these high-quality, semi-precious Senhoa pieces as well as design and make their own costume jewelry, exercising freedom within creativity. What's more fulfilling than seeing something so beautiful bloom from your own two hands?

The Senhoa program also provides a comprehensive life-skills curriculum to supplement their vocational training ... [including] Khmer and English language lessons, math, life-skills, science and physical education. The classes are carefully catered to the girls’ abilities, to rebuild the foundations for learning ... Often times, it is very hard for us to deal with the realities and atrocities of sexual exploitation -- who hasn't seen grainy, black-and-white photos of young children being sexual abused in Southeast Asia and felt helpless? It can get so depressing that people just want to "switch off." That's why Senhoa's goal is to engage people on the issue of human trafficking in a different way.

What was the most satisfying thing about the project for you personally?
Definitely the most satisfying part of this project was hearing personal messages back from the girls in Cambodia. They were so excited about my designs and happy to see pieces they made around the neck of a famous icon like Iman. I would love to go visit the girls myself soon!

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