What can a small, artisan town in the jungle mean for visionary entrepreneurs in the fashion and jewelry industry? The John Hardy brand is an example of the possibilities of merging heritage with business dreams. John Hardy is now known as an international name in the fashion world, but the original founder and namesake was an artist who arrived to Bali from Canada back in the 70’s, when Bali was still rural and undeveloped. He saw Bali’s artistic heritage as an opportunity to create a sustainable business that would tread lightly on the earth. Hardy was a trained sculptor, making jewelry a natural choice of medium, and he quickly began designing intricate one-of-a-kind silver pieces, crafted with the help of local Balinese artisans. From this humble beginning, the John Hardy jewelry line has steadily grown to be represented internationally at high-end stores like Neiman Marcus, and the brand is backed by eco-conscious celebrities like Julianne Moore, who supports their mindful way of doing business. In the last 40 years the workshop has also continued to grow in the very same village it started, now employing an impressive network of over 700 local artisans.
Visit to the John Hardy Workshop
I visited the John Hardy workshop in Ubud, Bali, expecting to find the usual industrial workshop standards. In my experience, even “greenest” brands still produce in grey places, which seems to be the grim reality throughout the fashion world. I was surprised to find John Hardy is an exception to this norm, starting with company culture. I arrived just before their daily team lunch, which was laid out in the form of an open-air feast in the workshop gardens. A long table was set for the management team, which featured a banquet of Indo-fusion dishes surrounded by rice fields. I later found out the rice fields aren’t only decorative, but a heritage grain especially planted and harvested by the company. They reap the rice themselves to form part of the meals they serve their 700 artisans on-site every day… which is no a small feat. All of this food, incredibly, is prepared by hand using no gas or electricity, using traditional wood-fired stoves. As we lunched, Balinese music played in the background, completing this idyllic scene and leading me to wonder if the music was also live. This opened a discussion about the recent internal talent show, where the management team had discovered that almost all 700 artisans had an additional secret artistic skill, which ranged from singing, dancing, playing an instrument or puppeteering. I realized that in Bali, an artisan is an artist first, and a worker second.
Our workshop tour begins in the design studio, with their intimate team of 12 local designers. In keeping with its handmade ethos, all designs are hand-drawn to scale, using no CAD (computer aided design). This is a rarity in the modern fashion world, especially for products requiring such detail. The hand drawn sketch doesn’t have a single measurement or technical specification, meaning that the artisan who makes the first prototype (and every prototype after that) reads the sketch and interprets it though intuition only. Of the 700 workers, 27 are the prized wax carvers who make the master mold from the sketch. The master sample leads the production down to the final cast piece, each piece being completed from start to finish by the same artisan. This means is that each bracelet or necklace is not only 100% made by hand, but by the same hand. The personality that is imbued in each piece of jewelry comes down to the unique vision of the artisan. The artisans working extremely complex pieces are given the title of Master Carver, and this level of mastery is usually attained only after a decade. Many artisans have been working for John Hardy for over 3 generations.
The unexpected twist in this story is that despite Bali’s rich artisan history, a jewelry culture doesn’t exist in Bali. Very few artisans were employed traditionally to make fine jewelry for the monarchy, meaning that the majority of the artisan community today has never worked metal, and especially not with these small dimensions. So how was John Hardy able to harness these skills and scale the workshop to the size it is today? The secret is that these artisans come from woodworking and stone-carving backgrounds, who have used intricate techniques that have been passed down from their ancestors and conserved over generations. You can see examples this refined carving skill on Bali’s stone temple walls, the statues of gods, and the floral timber architecture. Hardy’s insight was to tap into this transferable skill and let the artisans themselves unconsciously transfer this cultural history onto the jewelry pieces they create.
Sustainability and ethics in jewelry design
John Hardy has changed ownership twice since the original founder left, but the ethos has stayed true to its founding principles. Sustainability and ethics continues to be close to the heart of the company. All of the silver and gold comes from recycled sources, and gemstones are certified from zones of “zero-conflict”. They track all carbon emissions company-wide and developed a collection just to manage the impact. The “Bamboo” collection was launched with a “Wear Bamboo, Plant Bamboo” campaign, which plants bamboo seedlings for each piece sold, offsetting the carbon footprint. Even though the company headquarters are held in NY, the company is realizing the hidden strengths of their operations in Bali, and as a result they’re slowly opening up the back-end to the public. Full workshop tours are now available to visitors, which takes them through each step of the jewelry-making process and ends in a visit to their boutique. The jewelry boutique is an impressive A-line piece of bamboo architecture designed by studio IBUKU that appears to float over the rice paddies. Visitors are naturally also invited to join the management team for the daily feast. They’ve recently launched jewelry workshops, where the inside grill of a silver bracelet can be customized to your design. There’s even a jewelry masterclass for those who want to take the next step in jewelry making.
Fashion model for the future
It’s impressive to hear of visionaries who are able to materialize their dreams, and even more so in unexpected situations such as these. John Hardy left a major impression on me as an exemplary business model of the future, as they show how to balance both the macro and the micro needs of a “conscious” business in fashion. Often large players ignore the everyday laborer, and conversely many small ethical brands never reach a broader audience. Even if ethical standards are followed, most brands with overseas production still suffer from the imperialist mindset, gaining from low-cost labour but not engaging culturally. It’s easy to see these poor examples as proof that truly conscious fashion isn’t attainable. With a 40-year track record, John Hardy fights all stereotypes and holds its own as a leader and innovator for the future of fashion.