Master Craftsmen | The Jewellery Designer Tapping into Bali’s Topless Tradition

This unusual accessories range is all the rage in Bali

by Lisa Scott
Feb 14 2019, 11:58am

In this series, ‘Master Craftsmen‘, we meet the artisans putting a new twist on traditional crafts from around the world.

Bali’s immaculate rice fields and vine-strewn villages were once Carina Hardy’s paradisiacal playground.

The American-Canadian artist and jewellery designer spent her childhood on the Indonesian island, and recalls playing with local children in villages close to Ubud, an area famous for its arts and crafts.

"For centuries, Balinese women worked, cleaned and lived topless"

“It was normal to see beautiful, bare-breasted older women then,” says 22-year-old Carina, who now splits her time between New York and Bali’s Sayan village. “I would watch them slowly parading to the river with washing or firewood on their heads and was blown away by their remarkable posture and elegance.”

Models wearing Elppin jewellery. Photo: Elppin

For centuries, Balinese women worked, cleaned and lived topless. The purity behind the phenomenon - which is believed to have ceased because of Dutch colonial control, followed by the arrival of Japanese troops during World War II and then globalised, 21st-Century culture - has inspired Hardy to create a jewellery line dedicated entirely to breasts.

Elppin - nipple spelt backwards - is a line of wearable brass and silver art that is made in Celuk, the silversmith capital of Bali, by a master jeweller and Carina.

It began with nipple brooches - fixed with a magnet and designed to be worn above the nipple, creating a bold breast armour - and has evolved to include a spinning nipple pendant, stud, drop and fierce shield-shaped earrings, and a necklace and bracelet. They’re all created with the same abstract nipple motif, and range from $75 to $375 (£58 to £292), a proportion of which is donated to a free birthing clinic where Carina volunteered in as a teenager.

Elppin craftsmen at work in Celuk, Indonesia Photo: Elppin

“I designed the collection to ask the question: ‘why do we censor the nipple?’,” she explains. The answer, of course, is that the west has sexualised the breast. The Balinese, meanwhile, just saw it as vital for nourishment. Being topless was convenient, says Bali-based journalist Maya Kerthyasa.

“Balinese women have always worked hard, and they were often having to work or make offerings while they were breastfeeding their babies. It’s much easier for your baby or toddler to find your nipple if you don’t have clothes in the way,” she says. “I grew up seeing my grandmother topless in our family compound around friends, family and strangers. It taught me that the breast is a symbol of life, not lust.”

Carina is from a famous jewellery dynasty, so it’s not entirely surprising that after studying at New York’s Columbia University and London’s Goldsmiths, she has found her way into the workshop, driving her own vision.

Her parents John and Cynthia Hardy created the John Hardy fine jewellery line in 1975, and it still remains as one of the best-respected brands in the world, recently collaborating with British model Adwoa Aboah.

They also own the otherworldly Bambu Indah hotel which is set in a collection of bamboo buildings and antique Javanese teak homes scattered throughout a section of Ubud’s emerald jungle.

Craftsmen at work on the Elppin range. Photo:Elppin

This is the real majesty behind Elppin - it is created on an island that lives by rituals and a reverence for the unseen. “The Balinese believe that beauty created by human hands is an incarnation of God,” says Hardy, describing how her master jeweller Ketut connects with her message.

“He takes the breast inspiration very seriously and says the hammer marks and shapes vary because of the creative spirit channeled into the individual pieces,” she says. “We also joke about how he can work topless in the workshop but I can’t.”

Each piece of Elppin jewellery is unqiue - "like your breasts", says Carina. Photo: Elppin

Carina doesn’t work with uniform moulds so each piece is entirely unique, “like your breasts,” she says. “When production is rolling, Ketut’s wife Komang and his son also help cut the brass sheet into the Elppin nipple shape, and help with the sanding, hammering, and soldering.”

Elppin’s Instagram page, which promotes grace, grit and positive self image, has now begun to attract women from all over the world. “I’m constantly interacting with everyone from teenagers to mothers who are buying for grandmas and girlfriends,” she says. “I hope I’m creating a platform that liberates the breast from something that is strictly sexual and reconnects us with the miracle it is.”

Lisa Scott is a freelance journalist, who splits her time between London, Barcelona, and Margate. Keep up with her on Twitter

master craftsmen