Working with silver is an extremely labor-intensive process. It requires tremendous skill as well as large reserves of patience. An unsteady hand can ruin the design in a blink of the eye and a moment too long under the torch can cause a lacy pattern to crumble.
Balinese silversmiths put the same attentive care into each bead that they put into all aspects of their ceremonial life. The same hands that work metal with such exquisite skill weave intricate offerings of palm leaves and flowers, prepare towers of fruit and cakes to balance on their heads in processions and play instruments of the gamelan orchestra in village rituals.
Perhaps it is this mingling of the secular and the sacred that makes the Balinese people and their beautiful work so irresistible. A painter named Batuan explained it to me one day, "to the Balinese", he said, "all art is an offering to the gods."
The dedicated craftsmen who work for Nina Designs produce silver and gold beads of mind-boggling detail and complexity. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that each bead is a work of art, a miniature masterpiece on par with archeological treasures from the distant past. Indeed, the techniques used in Balinese workshops are remarkably similar to those used by bead makers in ancient Greece and Egypt.
Like their ancient peers, Balinese smiths use only the simplest tools in the production process. To begin, they mix pure silver, in the form of little pellets, with a very small amount of copper, which makes it stronger. They add a touch of borax, to help the metals melt and to burn off impurities, then heat the mixture with a torch. When the silver liquefies, they pour it into molds: a square mold if the smith wants a sheet of silver or a round mold for wire. Once they solidify, the smiths feed the round bars through progressively smaller ridges in a rolling machine, similar to a pasta maker, and then pull the wire by hand through round holes in a metal stencil. They feed the square blocks through progressively thinner slits in the same machine, continually adjusting the rollers, until they have a thin sheet of silver called plate.
Next the silversmiths cut the plate with a saw into various shapes and sizes. They also use metal stamps, called plongs, to cut out simple shapes. Circles can be hammered round in a shaping bowl and then soldered together to form beads. Other designs are made by hammering on metal caps (pronounced "chops") which come in male and female halves that mold the silver as it is sandwiched in between them. (Minoan smiths used the same techniques to form gold beads.) Open work designs are made by sawing small interior holes in the sheet silver. To make filigree designs, the smiths solder thin wires together in iron bowls. The curve of the bowl determines the curve of the finished piece.
Once the base shape is formed, the smiths apply granulation, wire work and cut outs. They use a paste made from little red beans called sego telik to hold the design in place. Next, they brush solder, made from silver, copper and water, over the piece and heat it with a wide torch flame. Using a wide flame allows them to heat a general area without overheating any one point. The Javanese use brass instead of copper in their solder mixture. They apply it as a strip that runs smoothly down a seam, creating a very clean line. With the soldering complete, the smiths clean the silver with the sticky, astringent insides of a tamarind fruit, then dip it into an antiquing solution which turns it black. As they polish the silver, raised designs become shiny while the background remains dark, a contrast which sets off the patterns beautifully.