It takes a strong will to leave the John Hardy Workshop without buying something beautiful.
It’s mid-morning when we pull up at the entrance to the John Hardy workshop, just outside Ubud. Chickens peck at our feet, a motorbike rides through the surrounding rice fields and a plucky rooster crows incessantly though it’s clearly well past sunrise.
We’re ushered inside what could easily be mistaken for one of Bali’s five-star resorts. In the foyer, elaborate stone frescoes depicting scenes of traditional Balinese life, and Naga the mythical dragon, are being hand carved.
The scene is inspired by the back grille found inside many pieces of John Hardy jewellery. While the jewellery’s exterior is typically simple, inside are often surprisingly intricate and elaborate designs. “The wearer is the only one who knows,” our guide, Utami, explains.
The analogy could also be applied to the iconic celebrity jewellery brand. Only after I’d witnessed what goes on behind the scenes, did I come to appreciate the brand’s time-honoured processes – some of which have been passed down from jewellers of Bali’s ancient courts.
Hardy’s striking Ubud Workshop opened in 1975 after he came to Bali on holiday as a Canadian arts graduate. Built from low-impact materials such as bamboo, adobe and thatch, the compound is setin a lush 160 hectares that includes rice paddies and farms. Incredibly, the site could return to rice fields within months of ceasing operations, while more than 1 million new seedlings have been planted through the company’s “Wear Bamboo, Plant Bamboo” initiative.
We follow the priestess into the compound along a shady, bamboo-lined path.
Here, every piece of jewellery is conceived, designed and produced in the compound’s inspiring design centre and workshop from reclaimed silver and gold. While Hardy no longer owns the brand he started more than 40 years ago, his ethos, built on community, artisanship and sustainability remains firmly intact.
We’re served a chilled lime tea with tamarind, palm sugar and a straw fashioned from lemon grass grown on the compound (the outer leaves are used to make sambal served with lunch, meaning nothing goes to waste).
As we sip the sweet concoction, a priestess from the local village arrives carrying an offering for the compound temple. Dressed elegantly in a cream lace jacket and black and white check sarong, the silver haired woman looks like a cast member straight out of Eat Pray Love.
Yet, we are simply witnessing typical local life. “Every day the ibu mangku [priestess] comes to bring an offering, ” Utami explains.
We follow the priestess into the compound along a shady, bamboo-lined path as Utami explains how John Hardy jewellery came into being. “When John first came to Bali he wanted to learn about sculpture. He met a community of artisans, including some who made jewellery for the royal palaces and temples. He was interested in what they were doing and collaborated with them to design a few pieces.”
Utami says Hardy, who still lives in Bali and is the founder of the renowned Green School, is a visionary and was able to share his concepts with the Balinese who created jewellery with basic, simple tools. “The classic hand-woven chain is one of his first designs and is a signature John Hardy piece.”
Daily, travellers from around the world come to the Ubud site to see how the jewellery is made and to browse the boutique. Some stay for a sit-down organic lunch with staff at a traditional Balinese long-table decorated with bunches of bright orange flowers.
A staggering 750 staff work on site, (there is a second Bangkok campus employing 500 Thai workers specialising in gem stone setting), crafting 110,000 pieces of jewellery each year.
Most of the silver smiths who work here arrive with basic skills taught to them by their family; skills they then master working at John Hardy. Others, such as the chain weavers, have adapted textile weaving skills, originally used make traditional ikat fabrics, for weaving silver and gold wire. Three generations of one family of chain weavers are currently employed in the workshop.
Utami shows us around the Cheong Yew Kuan-designed, open-air studio. Newly appointed creative director and jewellery prodigy Hollie Bonneville-Barden (ex De Beers head designer), is on site today working alongside Balinese staff who are busily bringing her designs to life with pencil sketches and watercolour illustrations. We watch two young women, master wax carvers, etch the designs in jeweller’s wax – a process that can take weeks – while a friendly, black-and-white cat roams the studio looking for affection.
During the factory tour we see the remaining stages in the fascinating eight-step process of hand crafting the jewellery, before having a go at chain weaving ourselves. Using a tiny tool, we clumsily loop one link to another, marvelling at the skill and patience required to piece together hundreds of tiny, individual pieces.
At lunch, I note almost every guest carries a stylish John Hardy gift bag having been tempted in the stunning Kapal Bamboo showroom, a 30-metre bamboo cathedral built in the shape of a ship’s hull.
So, let that be a warning. While the tour and lunch are free, it’s nigh on impossible to leave without taking at least one exquisitely crafted John Hardy piece home.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Como Hotels and Resorts.
Rooms at Como Uma Ubud start from $US290 a room per night. The resort offers a Legend of Naga experience that includes a three-night stay in a pool suite, a Tirta Empul temple cultural tour, an invitation to John Hardy’s Ubud Workshop, three-course dinner for two at the resort’s private Kemiri Bale, and his-and-hers Naga bracelets by John Hardy from $US4020 for two. See comohotels.com/umaubud/offers/legend-naga-experience.
Tours of the John Hardy Workshop and lunch (seats limited to eight people a day) are held Monday to Friday. Appointments must be made at least 24 hours in advance. See international.johnhardy.com/visit-us-in-bali