Above: An Anna Michielan necklace.
How a small Indonesian island has captured the imagination of jewelry designers from around the world
Photographs By Martin Westlake
“Every place on earth has a long history of body adornment,” says Bruce Carpenter, a cultural historian and longtime Bali resident. “The unique thing about Bali is that the old traditions have survived.” We’re sitting in a café in the hip beachside village of Seminyak, resting our feet after a morning’s exploration of neighborhood boutiques and galleries. Carpenter races on—this is a topic he’s clearly passionate about, and it’s a passion shared by an increasing number of jewelry designers. “This is the appeal for people who make jewelry, this cultural continuity—and because the Balinese are so nice,” he adds. “Other places in Asia have talented artisans. But designers stay here because of the people.”
One such designer is Johnny Ramli, a Sumatran who came to Bali with plans to move to Europe to establish his jewelry business. That was six years ago; Ramli couldn’t bring himself to leave. It’s a good thing, too. If he had left, he wouldn’t have stumbled upon the cheap piece of plastic tarpaulin that has since catapulted him into the global design limelight. Tarps are a common sight across Bali during the rainy season, and the material gave Ramli the inspiration and foundation for a stylish, eco-friendly tote, now stocked from Barneys in New York to trendsetting boutiques across Italy and Australia. But nice as it is, the bag pales in comparison with Ramli’s latest creations: a series of gleaming chain necklaces adorned with nine-karat gold charms carved to resemble playing cards and Hindu gods.
It’s a scorching January afternoon when I meet Ramli at Wrkshp13, his new boutique-cum-gallery off the beach in Kerobokan, the area just north of Seminyak. The striking, industrial-chic space is a temple to Ramli’s many creations, all inspired by his life on the island. “Bali is very exciting,” he tells me. “I can realize my visions here because every Balinese is very creative. It’s easy to experiment here.”
Having set up gold and silver workshops in nearby Canggu village, Ramli decided to make this store his ultimate experiment. “Five years ago, real designers shied away from opening shops in Bali because we feared copycat designers. But the market has become so much more sophisticated. Now, it’s fantastic. Tourism is good again, and many of the people who come from overseas remain clients after they leave.” I become one myself, scooping up unusual rings made with raw diamonds, Sumba buffalo horn, and elephant hair from Thailand, all set into simple gold bands.
Like many jewelry designers on the island, Ramli’s inspiration doesn’t just come from his surrounds. It also comes from the local pool of creative talent. Back in Seminyak with Carpenter, I am regaled with ancient stories of Bali’s silversmiths and goldsmiths, many of whom migrated to the island from Java toward the end of Majapahit era (1292 to 1525). Carpenter tells me that their creative traditions—the legacy of the Indonesian archipelago’s last great Hindu empire—have been passed intact from one generation to the next, inspiring not only traders and explorers of previous centuries, but also modern-day artists, including French-born jeweler Jean-François Fichot.
“Without them, I am nothing.” I’m having lunch with Fichot in his sun-dappled garden outside Ubud when the designer offers this effusive remark about his Balinese employees. “I am so thankful to them,” he continues, absentmindedly playing with a dazzling raw-cut Brazilian tourmaline necklace that shimmers between pink and green as it catches the light. “They are the masters. The people make Bali: their spirit and creativity. I came here with my own ideas, but this is their workmanship.”
Having studied design at L’École Nationale des Beaux Arts in Lyon, Fichot moved to Bali in 1978, setting up a home in Petitenget, not far from where Ramli’s boutique now resides. At the time, most of the island was still covered in rice fields. There were few places to stay in the upland town of Ubud; even electricity was scarce. It wasn’t until 1988 that Fichot made the move to his current bungalow, set beside one of Ubud’s many small rivers. “Places like India are nice to travel to for inspiration, but the artisanal traditions have all but disappeared. In Bali, classical dancing and carving and painting have endured.”
Immersing himself in this creative milieu, Fichot established a home-based jewelry studio. His design process, he says offhandedly, comes from “taking something and changing it into something else.” This embellishment extends from the shimmering rings on his fingers to the leather sandals on his feet, festooned with seashells that make a gentle clinking sound when he walks.
In Fichot’s atelier I feel like a kid in a candy store, there’s so much to admire. I fall in love with a delicate necklace of ancient Mesopotamian beads strung with shards of 2,000-year-old Roman glass unearthed in Afghanistan. There’s also a heavy pendant made from a fist-sized oyster shell etched with Balinese symbols. The glass display cases lining the room reveal a dramatic wild boar tusk from India’s Nagaland that Fichot has fastened to a leather collar. “This is the way craftsmanship used to be,” he says, fingering the smooth surface of the tusk, now inlaid with elaborate silverwork and carnelian stone.
Most of these creations will soon find their way to Fichot’s two-year-old namesake boutique in Ubud. But for now, they’re under the watchful eye of their makers: a group of craftsmen who sit huddled over gems and strands of leather, silver, and silk in a nearby bungalow. One young artisan crouches on the dusty floor carving a dorje (a Tibetan thunderbolt design) into crystal; another puts his full weight into polishing a buffalo-hide basket woven with intricate silver filigree. He looks up with a proud smile as I pass.
Leaving Fichot’s studio, I make my way back into central Ubud to meet American designer Lou Zeldis. Based out of an airy bungalow off Jalan Suweta, Zeldis lives among piles of handmade batik dyed with indigo and tree bark. As beautiful as the cloth is, it’s Zeldis’s Sumbanese-style ikat woven jewelry that I have come to admire. Zeldis originally moved to Bali to study performance art. “But then I started making stuff,” he says modestly. Today, Zeldis oversees a sizeable jewelry operation. Every inch of his duplex bungalow is piled high with signature creations, and even more “stuff” hangs from the rafters.
Although he doesn’t have his own boutique (which explains the clutter around his house), Zeldis does sell his wares at fashionable retailers like Maxfield and Roseark in Los Angeles. In Bali, “people can just find me,” he shrugs. Other than by knocking on the door of his bungalow, you can seek out his goods at local shops Macan Tidur and Threads of Life, both of which are committed, in Zeldis’s words, to “reviving traditions and re-creations of classical things, which is what my work is about.”
Worth looking for are his chain necklaces inspired by the basket- making traditions of the eastern Balinese village of Tenganan; the weave, Zeldis tells me, was once used to craft body armor. Other highlights include gold-and-sapphire drop earrings resembling jujubes, and buffalo-horn hoop earrings with bizarre carvings that the designer explains as mathematical in nature. I can’t resist buying a pair, and while I’m at it I snap up a surreal necklace hand-carved into links from a single piece of medicinal wood from Sumba. When I ask how long it took to create, Zeldis laughs. “The artist drank a lot of coffee!”
Another artisan running on high is the uncontested heir to Bali’s jewelry throne, John Hardy. Drawn to Bali more than 30 years ago, the Canadian expat tells me that he was overwhelmed by the island’s thriving goldsmithing tradition. Only a century ago, Hardy explains, Bali was still home to “Hindu kingdoms with lavish courts and major holidays each year that required opulent gift giving among the princes and princesses.” It was a jeweler’s dream. “There were ritual objects, spiritual kris daggers, and elaborate gilded wedding headdresses. I think our jewelry today has a magic to it because it was created by the hands of these tremendously talented people, the Balinese.”
While he no longer owns the company that bears his name (in July 2007 he sold stakes in John Hardy Ltd. to its president Damien Dernoncourt and creative director Guy Bedarida), Hardy remains the enterprise’s visionary, and encourages me to visit its jewelry warehouse to discover where the “magic” originates.
I do, and in no time find myself sitting down to a meal with Bedarida, a French designer who made his mark at Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris before moving to Bali 12 years ago. “From the start, I saw so much potential in the Hardy brand,” he tells me. We stroll around the premises after lunch, passing a dozen or so Indonesian designers whom Bedarida praises as “one of the world’s biggest concentrations of talent.” A young Javanese man nicknamed Poncho is working on an intricate gouache, set to become part of Hardy’s 2010 design collection. Then I meet Tutus Herdiatmo, a menswear designer for the group. Bedarida calls him “a national treasure.”
We make our way below ground into a storage area for the company’s archives. It’s a treasure trove that Bedarida has dubbed Ali Baba’s Cave, filled with jewels and artwork spanning more than 20 years of Hardy history. Shelves reach from the floor to the ceiling, showcasing everything from Hardy’s newest creations right back to the first pieces of jewelry he ever developed: traditional Balinese woven rantai chains and pendants crafted using the dot-like jawan, or granulation techniques, that have become associated with Hardy designs over the years. I salivate over past collections, all bestowed with Indonesian names like Padi (inspired by Bali’s rice terraces) and Kawung (an ancient Javanese batik form reserved for royalty), and gain an entirely new appreciation for the brand that I’ve long associated with big American department stores like Neiman Marcus.
On the way back to my car, I stop in at Kapal Bambu, the company’s showroom, which is crafted entirely of bamboo to resemble a lofty cathedral. Here, the Hardy collection sells at prices up to 30 percent cheaper than advertised in retail stores. I don’t need to have my arm twisted.
From one of Bali’s most established jewelers, to one of its newest: Christy Feaver, another Canadian-born designer, is next on my list to visit. Feaver touched down in Bali two years ago on a surf holiday. “I know it sounds clichéd, but I was just so inspired by the ocean and the Balinese people,” she tells me. Unlike other jewelers I meet, Feaver both designs and makes all her own pieces, though she’s still deeply involved with the local community. Not long after arriving in Bali, Feaver cofounded the Cause Gallery on Jalan Laksmana in Seminyak. The small boutique donates up to 20 percent of its profits to education and arts programs for Balinese street children.
One of the most popular items for sale inside is Feaver’s “Blessing” necklace—an om symbol set above a stylized sunset. I’m also impressed by her silver interlocking hoop earrings and a dramatic lava-rock ring, both of which cleverly fuse copper, brass, and silver with the occasional sapphire or ruby, but still seem demure and classy.
Leaving Feaver to her waves, I head down Seminyak’s Jalan Arjuna to the workshop of Anna Michielan, a Venetian designer who says she moved here to find a better life for her son. Today, Michielan imports diamonds from India and emeralds from Brazil. But the talent she uses to make her designs is all local. “Balinese are natural artists,” she tells me. “I train them to work with the beads and wire, but they often come up with something even better.” She produces a pair of delicate silver chandelier earrings accented with amethysts, tourmaline chips, and peridot, which I decide are destined to dangle from my lobes this evening. But it’s not just glamour that Michielan’s jewelry bestows; her work is also bound to give you a spiritual glow.
Two years ago, Michielan found herself propelled into new dimensions of design. “I felt guided toward crystals, I felt the energy of the gems,” she says. “I’ve found real purpose to my life and work, more than merely setting stones.” With her newfound spiritual lease on life, Michielan collaborates with the two Four Seasons resorts in Bali to develop crystal-based healing treatments, which then form part of her For the Soul collection. She shows me recent pieces from the collection including raw, smoky quartz rings and shimmering strands of turquoise-and-rose quartz mala beads, up for grabs at the Simple Konsep Store down the road.
My foray into the healing power of jewelry with Michielan prepares me to meet her longtime friend and fellow Hindu devotee Soma Temple, a lithe American who came to Bali on the advice of her guru. Temple tells me that she was guided into making malas out of the nubby, contoured seeds from broad-leaved rudraksha trees, native to South Asia. “The Balinese high priests wore these seeds in centuries past, but the quintessential Hindu adornment was lost to modern generations. Now, I sell a lot of this work to the Balinese, who love them,” she says. I’m visiting with my Balinese friend Dwi Santini, who confirms Temple’s claims by purchasing a couple of simple seed bracelets strung on elastic. “These will bring positive energy to my family,” Dwi says.
Temple employs eight local women, all adorned with rudraksha bracelets and necklaces embellished with amber, garnets, lava, and jasper. They tell me that each earth-hued seed is found inside a bright, cobalt-blue fruit. I watch them extract the seeds and string them with semi-precious stones at rapid-fire speed: Temple’s products are in hot demand around the world.
My final stop is with Korean artisan Tricia Kim, whose Nagicia collection takes inspiration from the tree roots and butterflies she encountered over the two-year period she spent working with John Hardy in the lush forests of Ubud. Trained at Parsons School of Design in New York, Kim knows she could find work designing for high-profile brands around the world. But like the other talented people I’ve met, she’s reluctant to leave her island home. “Bali is bursting with creativity,” she tells me as I admire her bold dragon designs and lotus-flower pieces, all cast in silver. “I tap into this constantly, regenerating the talent pool again and again. Nowhere compares to the beauty of Bali and its people. This will keep me designing here for a long, long time to come.”
Originally appeared in the April 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Bali Bijou”)