Nancy Hornback’s Interview with Suarti – “Welcome to Bali!”

by on ‎06-18-2013 11:07 AM

Jewelry designer, Suarti, is best known for her sweet words “Welcome to Bali!” and her beautiful Balinese costumes.  She may seem simple & kind; but, she is so much more!  By the age of 12 she was an accomplished painter, musician and dancer. She had performed for presidents and queens and later captivated audiences in New York bringing the spirit of Balinese culture to Broadway through dance.  She is a woman of great courage & empowerment as you will read.  All this from a little girl raised in a small village on the island of Bali. 

Suarti and her son, Gabriel (Putu), sat down with me late last year to chat after one of our Artisan-Crafted shows.  (A side note: please be patient as you read Suarti’s responses as English is not her first language. )

NH: This is 2012, so…when did you first come to QVC?

Suarti: 15 years ago! I came here all the way from Bali, and didn’t speak any English. You guys were teaching me all kinds of things! One, you teach me English. Two, you teach me how to do production.

NH: What was growing up like in Bali?

Suarti: Bali is very different from here. Bali is…you don’t go to school. Everything you learn at home, your grandmother teaches you how to do things.  My dad is a painter, he taught us how to paint, and he’s also an architect, a home builder, so he does all the temples. I learned from him, lots of things. I was a professional dancer and music player from a young age. I got dance and music from my grandmother. My mom taught me how to create, to sell, to show things to the customer.

NH:  How old were you when you began dancing?

Suarti: 5 or 6. In Bali, it’s a must. When you are little, you have to dance at the courtyard temples.  I was one of the pretty ones (she says very humbly), & was always there to dance.

NH: Did you ever get nervous?

Suarti: No, (laughs) the spotlight is good.  When people watch you, you feel more excited. Same with my (jewelry) designs. When I design and make something good for people, I feel excited.  I love when I see people wearing what I make. In Bali, it’s like that, nobody is doing it and I’m doing it, I feel so proud.

NH: Did you teach dance, too?

Suarti: Oh, yes, from a young age. I was one of the top dancers in 1969. I was only in primary school, 6th grade. After I won contests in Bali, all the villages in the north side of Bali asked me to come to teach dance to them. I was teaching them & was staying at people’s homes. You live with these people. It is so wonderful to be like that, sharing what I am good at.

NH: What kind of musical instrument did you play?

Suarti: Gamelan.  We learned at the village. My dad is in the gamelan group. You just bang everything and do the notes, (sings) “do re mi fa so la ti…” You can make your own songs. My son (she points to her son Gabriel) played that, too. We learned gamelan from the village.

NH: How big was your family?

Suarti: There are 8; 5 girls and the rest boys.  I’m number 3.  And my brothers and sisters are doing the same things…we’re all doing art.

NH: Did you dance/play music together as a family?

Suarti: Many times we danced together. My mother, my grandmother, they all together supported me and taught the people in the village.

NH: What about girlfriends growing up?

Suarti:  I left Bali since I was very young. I had a student exchange. They sent me to Singapore to teach dance. And then they sent me to Japan. I loved to teach outside of Bali. But I would miss my girlfriends. I would come home and we would all get together. They all got married. When you get married as a woman in Bali, you have a lot of taboos. You can’t do so many things. You have motherhood and have to do the housework.

NH: Your friends couldn’t dance?  Couldn’t travel?

Suarti: No.  But I called my friends and put them together and made women gamelan groups. It was hard because I was breaking the law of the village (a little bit). I would go to the husbands first. I would say, “My idea is to teach your wife to play gamelan for the temple”.  Many of the husbands were saying “that’s a good idea & it will give you (wives) something to do”. So, that’s how you get through the system.

NH: What happened next?

Suarti: I called the government, and said “We must have a woman’s competition playing gamelans”. A year later, they did it. So, when I went back to Bali, we started doing competition among the states.  The women would call to each other because we wanted to do this & stand up.   (I couldn’t ever understand why it was a taboo to dance, to play.   All these years I’ve been outside and see you people so free & women can do so many things.  I said, “why in Bali are women so limited?”)  I teach the women that their job is to raise the kids, make the offerings (to the temple) and do the community work.  Time is precious, so I teach them how to manage their time. After they finished their housework around half day, we taught them how to play gamelan and dance. It’s not taboo anymore.

NH:  You started a positive, beautiful revolution in Bali, empowering the women, at the same time keeping the position of the man intact.  You changed a nation!  What’s it like for the Balinese girls of today?

Suarti: In the old days we couldn’t go to university, only middle school. Now the children can go to the universities and get their doctorates. This is good now. The mindset opens. This changed a little bit.  But we don’t want to change too much. We want to keep the good things about the Balinese woman. Balinese women are the kindest, politest women. I want to keep it like that.  When you are a woman, the husband is number one. The husband, grandpa must eat first before the woman. We train ourselves like that through our children to keep that alive. There are many good things for Balinese woman. The family is number one!

NH:  Would you mind telling me about your children?

Suarti: I have 3.  Putu (Gabriel), who is here with me.  He is my number 1 son, my first born.  The warrior.  He was born in Singapore & very much a part of the Singapore culture.  My 2nd is my warrior daughter,  Sri, who was born in the United States.  She designs and follows in my steps.  My 3rd born is my son, Koman.  He was born in Bali & is very Balinese! 

NH:  What do you mean by “warrior” son and daughter?

Suarti:  We are from the “warrior” family. It is the high caste of people. Your job is that you must teach and care for others, and share what others need. They call us Satria’s. If anything happens to your people, you have to fight for them.

NH: Is that something you are born into?

Suarti: Yes.  There are 3 castes in our society. The first is the higher caste (Brachmana), his job is to care for his people, to talk to the gods. The second (Satria), is the fighter, they have to save their people.  The third is (Sudra) the low caste is the workers, the supporters.

NH: How important is the temple and offerings to you?

Suarti:  Very.  My grandmother taught me that every day you get up in the morning, clean & wash yourself, you clean up the yard & then you do offerings. Before you do anything, offerings have to be given to the god first. You pray, you thank god, and say that we need your help, (taksu) & he helps you and your family. Then you go to work.

NH: Do you have grandchildren?

Suarti: Yes, I have two grandchildren, one from him (points to Gabriel) and one from my daughter. They are very smart. We always pray. Whenever you see the granny, you have to plié and touch the grandmother’s feet. It means to honor your grandparents. All older Balinese people say all your luck is in the bottom of your feet. So you have to touch it to get that luck. I think it’s beautiful. Then the grandmother touches your head. I am trying to teach all my grandchildren this. My son says it’s too difficult to touch your feet. He’ll kiss your forehead. So, it’s modern.

NH: When did your journey with jewelry-making begin?

Suarti: When I was invited by the Asia Society to teach & lecture around the US.  And when you teach here, you are allowed to go to school for free. I took a course at F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York. I designed jewelry on paper because I’m a painter. I learned many things at F.I.T. & that’s how I got started.

NH: What are favorite pieces to create?

Suarti: I like to make bigger pieces, I like to carve silver.  It feels good to put your culture in the design. It’s important to share. In the world today, Balinese granulations are the finest. I like to hold that. It’s become my signature. They make “Suarti come to life.

NH:  There must be great significance behind wearing earrings, a headdress, a ring or bracelet for the Balinese.

Suarti: Oh yes. There are so many symbols. The day you are born, we keep the umbilical cord and put it inside the silver and wear it forever. Then when you get older, you make a different design, maybe a bracelet. Boys and girls wear it. They love to wear all different decorations. It’s so beautiful. When you get married, you have to wear gold.

NH: You also learned to make patterns for fashion while at F.I.T?

Suarti: Yes.  In Bali you have to sew to make your clothes. When I was at F.I.T, I was doing a tradeshow. My designs were inspired by the costumes of the Balinese opera. Henry Bendel has a big store on 5th Avenue, & he invited me to model in the window. From then on my jewelry & my sewing became known. I was in magazines. I got very popular.

NH: What are you currently working on for QVC?

Suarti:  I am going to bring Indonesia to you. I’m calling it the “Archipelagos Heritage Collections”.   Each of the islands have different people, religions, different motifs.  I went in and met the people.  The country was so beautiful, all of their jewelry is so unique, & nobody sees it!  I call it “primitive arts”. It is so different. So, I wanted to share it with the audience of QVC.

NH: Gabriel (Suarti’s son), since you’re here, what is the most important lesson your mom has taught you thus far?

Gabriel: Keeping art in our lives. It’s something that we have to fight for everyday. It’s hard to remain creative & keep holding onto that creative thread in our lives. That’s what she’s done, and she’s made her whole life about that.  I think that’s very important for me as well.

NH: Suarti, what’s next for you?

Suarti: Next? I think I want to open a museum; I want to make a school too. I would like to teach the young generations in Bali that they can also make it, like I have.

NH:  Suarti, you are an inspiration! 

Read more about the Global Artisan-Crafted Silver Jewelry event here:

Global Artisan-Crafted Silver Jewelry: From India to Indonesia, Thailand to Taxco, Mexico, QVC® travels the world in search of the finest, artisan-crafted sterling silver designs and brings them to you during Global Artisan-Crafted Silver Jewelry.Discover treasures made by artisans from the world’s silver jewelry capitals, each an exotic, one-of-a-kind creation featuring the unique styles and techniques of its native land, many featuring colorful gemstones.  Learn the fascinating history behind these distinctive designs as we present artisan-crafted jewelry from around the world during Global Artisan-Crafted Silver Jewelry.

Tune in to shop:

6/19 @ 1:00am-3:00am: Global Artisan Crafted Silver Jewelry

6/19 @ 1:00pm-3:00pm: Global Artisan Crafted Silver Jewelry from Indonesia

6/19 @ 11:00pm-12:00pm: Global Artisan Crafted Silver Jewelry

6/20 @ 1:00pm-2:00pm: Artisan Crafted Silver Jewelry from Beijing

6/20 @ 2:00pm-3:00pm: Artisan Crafted Silver Jewelry from India

6/20 @ 6:00pm-8:00pm: Taxco Traditions by Dominique Dinouart

6/20 @ 8:00pm-9:00pm: Global Artisan Crafted Silver Jewelry