Bali Silver Work: A Brief History
Indonesia learned the metal work crafts from Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian traders during the late Bronze age, several hundred years before the birth of Christ. These influences have been inferred from archeological digs that have uncovered dongson drums, jewelry, weapons and other artefacts clearly bearing "imported symbols." Excavations of ancient graves have also turned up artefacts from this period than show remarkable similarities with similar items from modern day China and India.
Over time, the metalworking skills of the Indonesian people grew, no doubt added by continuous contact with outsiders seeking trade in spices and other items. Gold and silver, which continue to be mined in Indonesia, were in no short supply by the time the Majapahit Empire emerged in Java (1300s) and moved into Bali. By the time the empire had failed, Bali had become the center of Indonesia's silversmithing and gold work activities.
One cannot easily discern how past influences have shaped current silver work practices in Bali. It is important to keep in mind that Bali, far from being an isolated island culture, has had vigorous contact through trade with many cultures over many, many centuries. Indeed, Indonesia as a Dutch colony as of 1602 and controlled much of the nation for 350 years. As such, European silverwork traditions and standards were no secret to the Indonesians, many of whom no doubt produced for export.
The Balinese people, who are primarily Hindu, have a long and illustrious history. Arts and crafts are a significant part of their culture, and among their artisans is a community of highly skilled silversmiths. While silversmithing is practiced all around the island, there is a concentration of silversmiths in and around Celuk, a village in the south central part of the island.
Bali jewelers use traditional methods to produce their unique style of silverwork. The traditions have been handed down from the Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian artisans, and many of the patterns and motifs used today have similar designs. Many families in Bali can trace their silversmith and jeweler roots back to the Majapahit Empire and the invasion of the Javanese in the 16th century. In Bali, metal smiths are known as Pandai, a term that means both smith and clever. In legends in the area, the first goldsmith clans were taught their craft by the gods that were sent to earth to teach humankind civil behavior.
Most jewelry in Bali, while originally gold, is now silver. The silver market is more popular worldwide, and the booming demand for exports dictates the production.
There are both Balinese and Javanese traditions seen in what is known as Bali jewelry. Balinese silversmiths tend to use small spheres of silver arranged in intricate patterns on a silver background. This technique is called granulation, and provides a sharp contrast between the darker background of the natural silver and the highly polished spheres of silver. Javanese silversmiths use fine filigree work on smooth, polished silver background. Most of the Bali jewelry on the market today is a combination of these two traditions.
Bali jewelry is unique is its combinations of silver with other metals and gemstones, in a fashion that is distinctive. The patterns are intricate and eye catching, and often incorporate other metals such as gold as well as gems. The dark background of the unpolished silver serves to frame the patterns of the polished silver and highlight the gems and other metals used. Recently more woven-type silver and gold jewelry is being produced in Bali, and this has become very popular as an export.