Prior to joining the company, Bedarida had never been to Asia before. “My first visit changed everything,” he tells me as he feeds one of the compound’s goats. With his blonde hair and white shirt and pants, the French-Italian designer cuts an unlikely figure here in the lush foothills of central Bali. But he is still infatuated by the island, its landscape, and its creative heritage.
I enter a thatch-roofed workspace where dozens of orange-shirted employees are shaping jewelry with pliers, tweezers, chisels. The tools may be simple, but the pieces they’re making are anything but: intricately woven silver chains, cuffs of silver and rosewood, rings crowned with delicate gemstones.
“There’s always a story behind our pieces,” Bedarida says later in his office, showing me a braided silver bracelet whose design was inspired by a legend about a naga (dragon) that fell in love with a pearl, standing guard over its oyster bed every night from atop a mountain. The bracelet’s texture is scale-like, and its clasp is a dragon’s head with bright ruby eyes and a gaping mouth. “When the head is worn facing outward, it gives protection,” he tells me, clearly relishing the moment. “When facing inward, it gives prosperity.”
Metalsmiths in Bali are known as pande. Traditionally, they formed a tight-knit clan that guarded its techniques jealously, and the island’s ruling caste would commission them to make bowls, gamelan instruments, gilded headdresses, and weapons—particularly weapons. Chief among these was the wavy-bladed dagger known as the kris, forged with a complex set of rituals that imbued them with magical powers.
The fortunes of the pandes began to slip away with the fall of the last Balinese kingdom a century ago, when the Dutch consolidated their control over the island. Over the decades, many of the clan turned to carpentry as a trade. But a few still make krises, and Made Gede Suwardika is one of them, having inherited his skills from his father and grandfather, who were paid for their creations with land rather than money. He shows me one of his creations, a kris that he made in partnership with his friend, Made Pada. The blade is testament to his command over metal, his ability to shape it into graceful curves. But the sheath and hilt are Pada’s, astoundingly complex patterns borne deep into the silver and wood.Long-haired and with intense hazel eyes, Pada lives in the village of Taro, on the outskirts of Ubud. His father is a sculptor; his brother, a woodcarver. Craftsmanship is in his DNA. Although not a pande, he is an accomplished silver-worker who started out in jewelry. “Making jewelry was so boring. Now, I make treasures,” he says. One sheath can take him months to create, and many of his pieces are showcased at Ubud’s Neka Art Museum.
“When designing a kris, I always feel in-spired by the tradition of old carvings,” Pada says. In his studio, which doubles as his bedroom, some half-finished sheaths are scattered in front of an old mattress, but their delicate floral motifs are already breathtaking. Next door is a Hindu prayer room, or sanggah. According to Pada, this place is an integral part of his creative process. “Before making my art, I pray first to put all things out of my mind other than what I’m working on. Taksu only comes from God if we focus on and love our work. If my art is nicer, sharper, then I believe taksu is inside it deeply.”
And wouldn’t you know it, his silver does seem to shine a little brighter.
The John Hardy compound in Mambal welcomes visitors to tour its workshops and the Kapal Bambu showroom; time it right, and you can even join the employees for an alfresco lunch (by appointment, 62-361/469-888).
To admire Suarti’s jewelry designs, head to the village of Celuk (100x Jl. Raya Celuk). Here, amid a welter of other silver shops, Ritual of Fire ) showcases the company’s latest collections in a range that spans rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and watches.
In Ubud, the venerable Neka Art Museum (Jl. Raya Campuhan) exhibits some beautiful traditional silverwork, including kris accouterments by Made Pada.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Dispatches: Silver Lining”).