Suarti: The silver queen
It was just starting to rain in Sanur but the gloomy weather was immediately brightened up after Suarti emerged from her jewelry boutique.
The woman, famously known as “the queen of silver”, warmed the day with her cheerful spirit.
In her modern-style blue batik blouse and matching orange trousers, she looked incredibly fit and fabulous in her 50s. Her spirit and enthusiasm burned, especially when she talked about art.
Desak Nyoman Suarti is one of the pioneers of Bali’s silver industry. Having been in the business for over 20 years, she is known for her contribution toward promoting and preserving the country’s culture through her pieces of jewelry.
Suarti said her life was all about art — she was raised in an artisan royal family where she learned to dance from early age, being first taught by her father who was a dancer, puppet master and undagi (Balinese architect).
She also learned to dance from her grandmother, who always reminded her that dancing was her yadnya (religious obligation). Her dancing lessons rose to a new level at the age of 9, when she took professional lessons from dancing maestro Anak Agung Mandra.
Dancing was not her only skill. Although many had doubted her talent, she also insisted on learning how to paint from Rudolf Bonnet — a renowned Dutch artist who resided in Ubud during 1929 and 1940.
But when she exhibited her paintings in the Bali Hyatt in 1973 and gained recognition, she proved everyone wrong. From then on, the sky was her limit.
Coming from a royal family, success came through hard work.
After winning several dancing competitions in Bali, she received approval from former president Sukarno and Dutch queen Juliana to represent Bali in a cultural exchange program.
As a teenager, Suarti visited the likes of Australia, Japan and Germany to teach Balinese dancing.
She later got the opportunity to further her study at a university in the US, where she remained for a decade.
Suarti said she chose New York University (NYU) as her interest was still on art. At NYU, young Suarti learned about design, such as painting, designing, pattern making and fashion.
“At that time, I didn’t know what a designer was. I thought a designer was like Lempad [I Gusti Nyoman Lempad — Balinese Maestro],” she laughed.
She recalled that her first jewelry-designing period was when she created a collection of 50 pieces of ankle bracelets for her homework in her basement. Her task was to transform metal into high value art — in line with a theme.
“I still remember the title, ‘What can metal do for you?’. I tried to sell it to my friends. That was when Henri Bendel found me,” she recalled.
She was referring to Bendel, who owned a prestigious jewelry shop on 5th Avenue, New York. He was interested in Suarti’s work and wanted her to do a trunk show, with her as the only model wearing nothing but her jewelry. The show was a success and it drew attention from big media outlets.
After receiving large-scale publicity, offers of work started to flood in from several top fashion brands in New York, including offers to creating jewelry collections and tall elegant crowns for Bjorn Van Den Berg’s perfume launching show.
At that time, she created her pieces in the name of art, until QVC contacted her to join its home shopping network. It was then that Suarti started to develop her business.
In 1983, Suarti decided to set up Balinesia, a company that focused on designing jewelry in New York. Since then, her jewelry business has grown.
After she decided to go back home to Bali, to Celuk, the island’s famous silver village.
“My goal was to develop Bali’s jewelry. At that time, there weren’t many people doing silver smith work in Celuk,” said Suarti, who also helps to preserve local culture through her Luh Luwih foundation, which teaches Balinese dances to children and empowers local women by teaching jewelry-smith work.
“The artisans still used traditional designs, not using many stones. Stones were hard to get during 1980s, I had to smuggle them from India and Singapore at that time and I was the only one who brought those gems here.”
But the dancing is not forgotten. The mother of three still dances, believing that jewelry-making and dancing to be linked — both had motion and she captured that in her designs.
“Designing jewelry is not just about creating a precious thing; the piece has a part of my spirit,” said the wife of Peter Luce and the mother of three, who prays to invoke taksu — God’s blessing, before she starts designing.
She said that every move to unite herself with God could become a design. From there, she prayed and put her vision into the jewelry so that it would have a spirit.
“After the making is finished, we pray again in the hope that it will be blessed by the goddess Saraswati and become sacred art,” said Suarti, referring to the Hindu goddess of knowledge, which she believed had always guided her as she was born on the day of Saraswati’s celebration.
“I even tell my customers to give my creations a special treat, like putting them under a lamp or in a decent place.”
Suarti’s jewelry shows are aired on QVC and the Value Vision shopping Network in several countries, such as Australia, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the UK and the US. Her business is also strengthened by the presence of her sales office — Kopi Susu — which is located in New York to focus on the US market.
Her Balinese spirit is strongly felt in every piece she designs.
Throughout the years, she has developed extensive collections inspired from Balinese culture, flowers, offerings and even dance movements, and has blended them with precious gemstones.
Her collections consist of several categories, such as the “Ritual of Fire”, which features high fashion jewelry
studded with precious gemstones; the “Cantik Line”, which showcases modern designs using beautiful pearls from Indonesia; the “Suarti Design”, which features large jewelry; and the “Archipelago Heritage”.
The latter is a symbol of her love for the country’s culture, which she never stops exploring. Recently, she traveled with her team of designers to Kalimantan to study the culture of Kaharingan.
At the moment, she has successfully developed cultural designs from several ethnic groups in the country, such as the Dayak of Kalimantan and the Toraja of Sulawesi.
“I always ask my new designers to travel around Indonesia, not overseas, because we would never be able to compete with them. They have different cultures and so do we,” Suarti says.
“Dig our culture. Heritage doesn’t have to look ethnic, but it should have a soul.”