From Prism Volume III: Cut & Thrive Ben Kho Survived the Khmer Rouge Communist Regime in Cambodia

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

If Ben Kho seems like a particularly joyful man, that’s because he has much to be thankful for. Kho is the founder and CEO of Kho International, Ltd., a gemstone cutting and fine finished jewelry business in Decatur, Ga., with an extraordinarily inspiring backstory.

Born in Battambang, Cambodia, the third of nine children, Kho helped his father sell tropical rambutan fruit to support the family. At age 15, his dad sent Kho to Pailin, Cambodia, to supervise the harvest, packaging, and transport of hundreds of kilos of fruit to wholesale to merchants. After harvesting season, Kho stayed in Pailin to mine Sapphires and Rubies in the nearby gemstone mines—a teenage Kho had big dreams of striking it rich! It was hard work; he dug tirelessly for almost a year, didn’t find much, and ultimately lost money on the venture.

But he wasn’t defeated. Instead, he pivoted to becoming a dealer. Figuring that he needed to understand gem cutting to know what to look for when buying rough, he spent six months receiving instruction at a small factory near the mines. There, he learned to pinpoint the areas in gems with the best color, distinguish light and dark spots, and locate clear areas and those with inclusions. He ascertained how to visualize shapes and sizes within each piece of rough and gauge the weight gems should lose. He also learned to maximize a stone’s size and bring out its brilliance. Kho spent the next four years, 1971–1974, harvesting fruit for his dad and cutting and wholesaling Rubies and Sapphires in the off-season.

From Prism Volume III: Cut & Thrive Ben Kho Survived the Khmer Rouge Communist Regime in Cambodia

Khmer Rouge Arrives

In 1975, Kho’s life was upended by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (nicknamed the Khmer Rouge). That ruthless regime held power from April 1975–January 1979 and left upwards of 3 million Cambodian civilians dead through “starvation, torture, execution, medical experiments,

untreated diseases, forced marches, forced labor, and other forms of violence,” according to the USC Shoah Foundation. Mass graves proliferated in the country in areas known as “killing fields.”

The family’s lives became “a living nightmare,” says Kho. “We were forced to abandon homes and work brutal labor at gunpoint while nearly starving to death. I witnessed mass graves, the torture and execution of close friends, neighbors, and family, living in fear and hunger for four

long years, thinking each day might be our last. We prayed for freedom. I remember looking up at the moon one starry night while working in the rice fields and thinking, ‘Someone else is looking up at this same moon in freedom. I pray that one day I can do the same.’”

In 1979 during a Vietnamese attack, the family fled. The Khos journeyed through mountains and jungles, encountering landmines, guerrilla warfare, and deadly wildlife. For three days, they ran for their lives with no clean water and little food. Once they reached Thailand, they were shut out of the refugee camps just across the border and tormented by armed Thai soldiers. They sheltered in the nearby jungle, scavenging for food and water and fearing for their lives. Months later, after intervention from the world community, they were admitted to a refugee camp. Their prayers were answered when they were eventually sponsored by the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, to come to the U.S.

From Prism Volume III: Cut & Thrive Ben Kho Survived the Khmer Rouge Communist Regime in Cambodia

Coming to America

A question on the sponsorship application asked applicants about specific skills, so Kho wrote that he knew how to cut gemstones. Once stateside, he was introduced to a kind and experienced gemstone cutter, Mark Songer, who taught Kho to use American lapidary equipment. Eventually, a member of their church shared information about a gemstone-cutting

job. Those skills Kho learned as a teenager in Cambodia became the foundation for his new life, and for the next eight years, Kho worked nearly 16 hours a day as a lapidary and as a landscaper on weekends to make ends meet. He was happy to work, especially cutting gemstones. He

cut all kinds of rough from around the world, increasing his knowledge and expertise on the properties of gems.

In 1988, Kho debuted his own business from the basement of his house. In addition to cutting his own gems from rough, he took in repairs from other dealers and eventually started exhibiting at trade shows.

Business & Blessings

Using preform and facet machines, Kho developed some signature styles, and clients came to know him for fantasy cushion cuts and round Portuguese cuts. Cutting a gem can take a couple of hours depending on the carat weight, and he loves to work with Rhodochrosite for its color and complexity; Rhodochrosite is a challenge to cut and polish because it’s soft (3.5–4 on Mohs). He’s become so skilled at it that he took 1st Place in the North American Mined category of the 2022 Cutting Edge Awards for an 11.46 ct. antique cushion-cut Rhodochrosite that he gifted to his wife. “The mine is closed, and you can’t find sizes like this anymore,” he says.

Another tricky gem to cut is Kunzite. “It takes a long time to cut because the entire stone will crack into pieces with too much pressure,” Kho says.

A memorable job involved a Russian Alexandrite that couldn’t be shipped because of its value ($1.5 million retail), so the owner brought it

to Kho’s house to cut while he waited. Another is a 10-plus-carat Benitoite from a California mine owner who also flew in for the work. And though Kho cuts many high-value items and award winners—he’s amassed 31 AGTA Spectrum & Cutting Edge Awards to date (five

alone in 2022, sweeping the entire All Other Cut Gemstones category)—he remains a humble servant of the Lord who likes to watch Kung Fu movies while he cuts.

“I still remember when I had nothing but hope in the death camps all those years ago,” he says. “My family and business are gifts that I would not have today without God’s protection, the sponsorship of the church in Atlanta, and everyone who helped us along the way. I truly believe that with freedom and opportunity, anyone can be successful if they never give up on their dreams and are willing to work hard for it. I thank God for blessing me and my family.”

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This article first ran in Prism Volume II 2023. See the flipbook by clicking here.