IO – At the opening of the Tulola Nusantara Exhibition on the 22nd of November 2019 at the Bimasena Club in Jakarta the first thing to greet the eye was artist Joko Avianto’s mammoth rattan sculpture containing special spaces exhibiting pieces of Tulola’s unique and eye-catchingly eloquent jewelry. The centre piece of the exhibition is a gold-plated necklace from which hang the major islands of Indonesia. A piece fit to quicken the heartbeat of any true blooded patriot.
Joko Avianto describes his creation as inspired by the traditional Cirebon megamendung (thundering clouds) motif whose curving lines lead away and then back again to the place of origin – a very fitting metaphor for Tulola jewelry.
“At Tulola the past becomes the present. That is the essence of Tulola jewelry in its creative sense. We use the old jewelry traditions of Indonesia. You know, art in its most pure sense has no single creator. It is the community that has produced it. We see that in the form or design of the Balinese traditional gold earrings known as subeng. In the past such earrings were used for traditional ceremonies or in the adat. In helping to build the future of Indonesia we are looking at the base or essence of our past traditions, knowledge and beliefs so that these will become part of the Indonesia we are building,” expounded celebrated Indonesian actress, writer, producer and director, Happy Salma. Indeed her Titimangsa Foundation was established to promote and revive interest in earlier works of modern Indonesian literature.
This theme of looking to Indonesian culture as well as Indonesia’s past for inspiration, when producing new creations in a globalized world is one that also appears both in Salma’s plays and books. It is typical of Salma and is one that President Jokowi would be delighted with. The new government cultural policy announced last year demands just that: creating and promoting an Indonesian culture that is a mixture of past traditions, knowledge and beliefs mixed with influences from both East and West and in tune with the modern digital age – and yet still uniquely Indonesian.
The opening of the exhibition began with a performance choreographed by Happy Salma and poetry reading. It was attended by celebrities such as Indy Barends, Marsha Timothy and Dira Sugandi. The business community was also visible with the appearance of Putri Bunga Soediono of Pubumesu and Dewi Moran. Franka’s husband Nadiem Makarim accompanied Tri Suswati, wife of the Minister of the Interior and Renita Sari of the Djarum Foundation was representative of non-governmental institutions.
The designer of Tulola jewelry is Sri Luce an Indonesian American lady who comes from a rather distinguished background. The renowned Clare Boothe Luce is her great aunt via her father’s side of the family. Clare was an America author and congresswoman as well as the first American woman to receive a major ambassadorial post. Time magazine called her Renaissance Woman of the Century. She was married to Henry Luce the founder and publisher of Time and Life magazines, popularly known as Mr Time-Life.
On her mother’s side, Sri is the daughter of Desak Nyoman Suwarti, a remarkable dancer, painter and jeweler from Ubud. Sri’s father Peter Luce came to Bali in the 1970s looking for painters and dancers for a cultural exchange program when he met his future wife. Later Suwarti became a very successful jeweler who sold her creations on QVC, a free-to-air American television network, and flagship shopping channel specializing in televised home shopping. Franka Makarim the third member of Tulola commented, “This lady from Bali was doing amazing silver work and was even selling it via television. She was the biggest jewelry supplier there for 15 years.”
After 15 years Suwarti decided to retire and Sri who had returned to Bali after being sent to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania followed by a stint at New York University, thought it would be a shame for her family to simply let go all the highly skilled Balinese craftsmen who had been working for and trained by her mother to produce contemporary jewelry. So, gradually Sri began to immerse herself into designing and creating fabulous modern jewelry but with a very Indonesian flavor.
Sri learnt jewelry design from her mother. Her passion had always been history especially ancient history and she found herself fascinated with ancient Balinese jewelry techniques such as for example bun the Balinese common metal smithing technique. Sri wanted to accentuate that technique and design around it. Another old technique she employs is tata which is carving or relief work using clay as a holder for the piece being produced. This Sri uses for example in carving flowers on the jewelry. In the past such techniques were passed down from generation to generation but now this is no longer so frequently the case so Sri also trains craftsmen in these old techniques in her workshops. In 2007 she created a company called Tulola, an abbreviation of her little daughter’s name Putu Lola.
In 2010 Happy Salma married a Balinese, the son of the Cokorda of Ubud. Happy moved from Java to Bali and one of the first projects she undertook was writing a book about Sri’s mother Desak Nyoman Suwarti as a Balinese dancer, painter, jeweler and handicraft expert. Sri who was already friends with Happy’s husband, Tjokorda Bagus Dwi Santana Kertayasa helped Happy with the book by photographing and compiling Suwarti’s work. It was Sri who went through her mother’s archive and organized it for the book which was entitled The Warrior Daughter for her mother who is of the Balinese warrior cast likes to say, “We are from a warrior caste and I am the warrior daughter”.
In the meantime, Sri and Happy not only developed a strong friendship but realized that they also worked together very well and both shared an appreciation for Indonesian culture especially the traditional arts and crafts as well as myths and story-telling. They also found that they shared a passion to protect not only the environment and traditional Indonesian heritage but also had a desire to empower women and the impoverished. It began with Happy bringing silver and gold-plated jewelry to Jakarta to sell and telling Sri to feel free to be as crazy as she liked with her designs which proved highly successful. Gradually, the two ladies began to establish a partnership through Tulola. They did shows and produced limited edition one of a kind jewelry. In 2015 they opened a store in Bali and in 2018 they opened an office in Jakarta where since this year they are selling Tulola jewelry in Kemang, Plaza Senayan and Grand Indonesia.
Both are extremely creative people and the approach they favoured was through a story telling theme for each piece of jewelry that they produced. In this Sri says, “I tell a story through the product and its design while Happy tells a story through how a piece is presented and seen by the public. My work pertains to the product’s visual content. I am the graphic designer. Meanwhile, Happy collaborates with people and events. She sets up the stage for how the product will be viewed. She is like the artistic producer. I suppose our collaboration falls under a sort of branding but we have a very multi-dimensional concept of branding. Usually you get a luxury brand with designer and logo whereas we want to create a multi-sensory branding of story-telling with people, relationships and the community involved.”
And what about the story itself?
“The story is a collaboration between Happy and myself. We brainstorm together… and it is a very similar process to preparing a stage performance. We decide on the theme or subject to be performed and then Happy is in charge of the stage, how the performance is presented, the collaboration with other artists, set designers, who the actors will be, the timing and the purpose of the performance.”
In 2016 Tulola received another partner, Franka Makarim, the wife of Nadiem Makarim, founder of Gojek and current Indonesian Minister of Education and Culture. Franka whose father passed away when she was still a child was very much influenced by her mother. Franka’s mother, a strong woman who had to become sole provider and parent taught her that as a woman she needed to be independent and able to take care of herself.
Franka’s career took her into integrated marketing, branding, advertising, retail, digital and e-commerce. Before becoming a part of Tulola Franka took a year off to have a baby. It was then that she began to look for something new to do. She had known Sri since 2007. They were friends and she loved her designs. Franka remarks, “I also saw so much potential and strength in the Tulola brand.
It was very distinct with a deep meaning behind everything they created and the thread that tied everything together was Indonesia in the form of literature, myths, songs, motifs, traditions and Indonesian nature.
They also never compromised on the quality of their work either with the materials they used or their production process. They used export level machinery from Italy and their quality is consistently high. It’s all export level.
And then as a potential investor, most important for me was whether their business could scale. In other words, how fast could I make it bigger? I studied it and found it completely scalable. I think investing in Tulola is the best decision I ever made! I find a real partnership with Sri and Happy and the relationship between us three is one of the best and most important in my life.”
Sri sees herself and Happy marrying the tangible and the intangible aspects of branding whereas Franka executes it on a business level. Franka says that she looks after the retail strategy and operational business growth. The three ladies each have a different approach and sometimes disagree but they have the same vision and because they each have different skills they respect each others’ views. Franka says that next year they will be trying to make the business more sustainable in the sense of what material they use, what kind of waste they produce and how they can run Tulola as sustainable both from a business as well as an environmental perspective. In 2020 they will also be producing the pure gold jewelry that so many of their customers are asking for.
Three celebrities collaborated in the Tulola collections for opening night. Perhaps it’s no surprise that heart throb and Citra Award winning actor Reza Rahadian Matulessy who often works in stage productions with Happy was involved in the collection called Suku Umbu which represents Indonesia’s diverse tribes and ethnic groups as Reza himself is the creation of a Moluccan-Javanese marriage and a Muslim-Christian family. Well-known jazz singer Andini Aisyah Haryadi who has released 4 albums and won numerous music awards collaborated in the Rekah collection which consists of wild and asymmetric floral motifs representing natural beauty in the wilderness of a Nusantara landscape. As a great musician and a young mother she is transitioning into a more mature woman and represents for Tulola the feminine power of Nusantara whose inhabitants show 74% Austronesian DNA. In the Austronesian world women have a comparatively higher status than in other regions.
The music and language collection entitled The Story in the Tone has a choker style necklace with bars similar to the base of bamboo weaves with musical notes denoting not just music but also sound. This was produced in collaboration with actress and singer Eva Celia Latjuba after long discussions not only about music but also the development of Indonesian as well as the many local languages of Nusantara.
Meanwhile nature lovers will adore the collection named after Indonesia’s harvest goddess, Dewi Sri. Stalks of rice decorate the jewelry and a tiny diamond on them is a tribute to subak, Bali’s ancient communal irrigation system. The charmingly themed Kupu-Kupu Barong collection is full of butterflies and named after the large butterfly which Balinese legend has it brings luck and visitors to houses that it enters. There is also the collection inspired by nature in Ubud; the wind and the rain.
As Nusantara or the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago has always been the central theme of all of Tulola’s jewelry collections they wanted to hold an exhibition this year to present past as well as present Tulola collections. The idea was to hold an end of year celebration of artisan craftsmanship and the Indonesian fine arts legacy in jewelry. The intrinsic message is that Tulola is not standing alone in regenerating traditional craftsmanship but that many others are involved. “It’s a joint passion,” says Sri, “and Tulola is just one of many that have the DNA for this sort of work in Indonesia.”. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)