Inspired by the island’s artisanal heritage and rich cultural traditions, Bali-based jewelers are producing exquisite silver pieces that have their own stories to tell
Desak Nyoman Suarti, Bali’s “queen of silver,” is dancing, her body moving with the suppleness of a teenager’s as she traces circular patterns in the air with her hands. When she catches the bewildered look on my face, she laughs.
“All my jewelry designs have cultural roots,” she explains, stopping to open one of her catalogues and pointing to a picture of a bracelet engraved with a wavy motif. “This pattern is called util. It is inspired by the hand movements of a traditional Balinese dancer.”
We’re in a tiny workshop at her Suarti Company headquarters in southeast Bali, just steps away from Ketewel Beach. Five men are embossing disks of silver at a long table, their fingers moving with pianist-like dexterity. Suarti, an elegant mother of three in her fifties who wears her raven-black hair in a bouffant, is, among her many other accomplishments, a classically trained Balinese dancer; by the age of 12 she had performed in front of then Indonesian president Sukarno and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. It was in that capacity that she was chosen to represent Bali in a cultural exchange program that took her overseas. She eventually ended up in New York, where, while teaching art classes at NYU, she discovered she had a talent for making jewelry, too. In the early 1980s she opened a small showroom in Soho, and as New Yorkers then were only just discovering the exoticism of Bali, it created something of a sensation.
After being based in the United States for two decades, Suarti returned home to focus on expanding her operation. Today, the company employs more than 100 people, creating ornate silver baubles—pendants, earrings, bracelets —for local retail outlets as well as for export to dozens of markets worldwide. Some designs are inspired by the patterns of songket, a brocaded cloth; others take their cues from Balinese cultural traditions such as dancing. But all have an ineffable quality that Suarti attributes to “spiritual energy.”
“Through prayer and ritual before work, an artist can make their work come alive—can give it taksu,” she says. Taksu, a central concept in Balinese aesthetics, can also be translated as “divine inspiration,” and it is some- thing that the island’s artists aspire to. “Taksu comes from God. Humans are the mediators. A dancer who has taksu is more interesting to watch. It is the same with the craft of silver.”
Kapal Bambu, the John Hardy showroom in Mambal, is built entirely of thatch and bamboo. Designed by the Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan, it rises like a shaggy, upside-down ship’s hull from a swatch of terraced rice paddy. The breeze carries the smell of wet mud; chickens scratch around the edges of uneven stone paths. It’s a surprisingly bucolic setting for a multimillion-dollar jewelry-making operation that sells to high-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
The company’s Canadian-born founder, John Hardy, first made his way to Bali in the mid-1970s. A young art student at the time, he was immediately smitten with the island’s intricate craftsmanship, and together with local artisans he began applying time-honored techniques to contemporary designs. In 1989 he and his wife Cynthia launched his eponymous brand with a line of exquisite handmade adornments, and a decade later he recruited Guy Bedarida as the company’s creative director, luring him away from a high-profile job in New York with Van Cleef & Arpels. Seven years ago, Hardy retired to devote himself to environmental projects such as his nearby Green School, selling his stake in the business to Bedarida and French entrepreneur Damien Dernoncourt.