History of Balinese Silverwork

Balinese Silverwork is part of an ancient tradition.The art of metal work arrived in Indonesia in the Bronze Age from Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian areas. Bronze drums, dated from as early as the fifth century BC, have been found throughout the archipelago, and some of them are believed to have been cast in Bali. Indeed, the most famous of these drums, the massive Moon of Pejeng, still rests in Bali on a temple pavilion in the village of Pejeng. The drums were cast in the lost wax style and in stone molds. Beads of glass, carnelian, shell, silver, gold and other metals have been found in Bronze age sites as well. The earliest metal jewelry was primarily copper with some gold, silver and “suwasa”, which is one part gold and two parts copper. Metal age graves reveal gold necklaces, hairpins, beads and rings. Initially, raw gold made its way to Indonesia from China and India but eventually gold was found in Sumatra, which became famous for its jewelry and dagger hilts.

By the time of the birth of Christ, the people of Sumatra and Java were practicing rice cultivation with irrigation and the use of the buffalo-drawn plow. The accumulation of wealth which ensued encouraged the refinement of many art forms, including jewelry. By AD 1,000 gold and silverwork in Java had reached a level of artistry as high as that of the bronze caster. The abundance of gold was documented by a Chinese trader who reported in 1225 that Javanese criminals, except for thieves and murderers, were not imprisoned or subjected to corporal punishment but fined in gold.

The Majapahit Empire of Java began colonizing Bali in the 14th century. (The Majapahit imposed a caste system on Bali with themselves on top and the original inhabitants of the island on the bottom.) By the beginning of the 16th century Bali became a sanctuary for Hindus forced out of an increasingly Islamicized Java. As the Majapahit Empire crumbled, there was a huge influx into Bali of Javanese noblemen and craftsmen and Bali became one of the main centers of precious metal craft.

The facility where we produce our Bali sterling silver beads is located in Bali, in the outskirts of a village called Celuk. Celuk has a tradition of metal work that stretches back many generations. Its craftsmen catered to aristocrats in the nearby court town of Gianyar and the noble houses of Sukawati and Ubud. Historically, the Royal Courts of Bali were avid patrons of the arts, which they used as expressions of their sacred and temporal power. The Dutch sea captain Arnoudt Lintgens, who visited the court kingdom of Gelgel in east Bali in 1597, was impressed by the lavish display of exquisitely fashioned gold ornaments including parasol fittings, lances and daggers.

Although most smiths come from the lowest ‘sudra’ caste, Balinese metal smiths have always been held in awe. The word ‘pandai’ means both ‘smith’ and ‘clever’. A group of smiths from Singaraja, in the North part of the Island, trace their line back before the immigration of the Majapahit Javanese. Another clan of smiths consider themselves direct descendants of Brahma, the fiery Hindu God. The symbolic importance of precious metals in Hindu cosmology is reflected in the belief that the triple peaks of Mt. Meru, the abode of the Gods and the center of the world, are made of gold, silver and iron.

The Balinese have several traditions concerning the origin of goldsmiths. Ancient Hindu lontars (books of inscriptions written on leaves of the lontar palm) tell of the mythical history of the arts. In one, the gods are sent to Earth to teach men civil behavior. The god Mahadewa trained the goldsmiths and silversmiths while Sang Citra gave them specific instruction in jewelry making. Smiths who worked with precious metals were called, “pande mas,” goldsmiths, from then on. In another inscription, a Brahmin from Majapahit named Empu Sari first taught the Balinese to work gold. Yet another calls the first goldsmith Sang Mangkukuwan, eldest son of Vishnu.


Nina with Silversmiths in Bali Production Facility

Spider in Web with Silver Charm

Balinese smiths still produce beautiful gold ornaments for domestic use but the majority of production is silver work for the export market. International demand has grown so rapidly that new centers of production have sprung up in Denpasar and Kuta. In recent years, Celuk has absorbed young people from diverse backgrounds who train and work side by side with others whose families have been working with precious metals for hundreds of years.

There has also been a significant influx of silver and goldsmiths from the island of Java. Modern Javanese silversmiths specialize in fine filigree work and ‘plin’, a style of shiny flat surfaces and clean, streamlined joints. In contrast, Balinese smiths specialize in granulation, in which minute spheres of silver are arranged in beautiful geometric patterns. Many designers today want motifs that combine the Javanese and Balinese traditions. To accommodate them requires cooperation and cross training.

The earliest Balinese silver jewelry designs were copies of traditional gold jewelry. The Balinese use beautiful repousee silver bowls and implements for their temple offerings but for jewelry they prefer gold, and would rather go without than wear silver. As a result, silver jewelry developed only recently and has always been an export product. As the market for silver grew, there was pressure to diversify and motifs from many cultures were quickly diffused through the community of smiths. The use by artisans of multicultural motifs is an ancient practice. Gold jewelry found from early Egypt, Greece, Phoenicia, Persia and later Rome, all display motifs borrowed from one another. The migration of skilled craftsmen, especially goldsmiths, from dying to emerging civilizations is also an age old trend.

While in the ancient world migration and Phoenician traders were responsible for slowly diffusing ideas, the process has become almost instantaneous with the advent of television, airplanes and fax machines. Today, buyers come to Bali from all over the world. Designers flock to the island as well. They are drawn by the sympathetic environment as much as by the skill of the craftsmen. Bali seems to nurture creativity. It is a setting in which the seeds of one’s imagination germinate with the same careless abandon as those of the lush vegetation. Many of the cottage industries produce work for foreign designers but the creative process is almost always a collaboration in which the influence of the Balinese craftsmen is readily apparent in the finished product.

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