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Silver experts tend to have a Euro-centric or decidedly American-centric view of silver. Because
of all the books and articles which I have read about these types of silver, my thinking was also
focused in this direction, but through repeated exposures I have discovered that the Asain
silversmith is as talented as any American and/or European silversmith, current or past.
Furthermore the extreme patience and attention to detail makes Asain silver an especially
beautiful and affordable object.
The Javanese silversmiths have attempted to capture the essence of the perennial battle between
moral good and evil with their interesting designs and their wonderfully detailed craftsmanship.
Java is the largest island of the 3,000+ island nation known as Indonesia. Indonesia has the fifth
largest population in the world and a multi-ethnic culture that has been documented for millennia.
The initial settlers came from the Indian subcontinent. They of course brought their Hindu culture
and arts with them. Later settlers were Moslem and they also brought their culture, arts and
The highly stylized figures on the pieces pictured have a small waist and exaggerated thin arms
and legs. The small waist is a carry forward from the exceeding rounded sensual figures from the
Gupta art period in India. The Moslems with their strong anti-sexual public version of the female
form caused the shift away from the sensuous representation of the Indian art. The resulting
stylized figure is a cross between the Hindu and Moslem versions of the human body.
The principal form of teaching Javanese morality is the struggle between the Gods and the mystics
or evil ones as recounted through the Ramayana and Mahabarata epics of Hinduism. The tales of
the struggle are told in the form of a puppet play. The stylized figure with almond shaped eyes
and a pointed nose is best typified by Ardjuna. This refined character typically has his head bent
downwards to show modesty with a relatively straight line from the forehead to the tip of the
nose. The evil characters typically have a round eye, bulbous nose and a defiant angle of the head and body. Interestingly, the "good" puppets are always physically smaller than the "bad" puppets.
You can see many of these differences in the pieces pictured.
The theater is typically a white sheet. The puppeteer (dalang) who is a combination showman, and
shaman and priest manipulates puppets which are mounted on rods. Javanese puppets are
reported to be the most refined rod puppets in any culture. A strong light shines against the
puppet and throws a shadow on the white sheet screen. The play may be observed from either
side of the screen but in the old tradition, the woman and children watched it from the shadow
side of the screen and the adult males watched it from the side where the dalang was sitting (some
cultures had both men and women in the same seating arrangement and currently this is the
standard arrangement). There is also much philosophical argument as to which is the proper side
to view the play.
The story lines are very varied. The typical play starts at about 8 P.M. when the dalang
introduces the plot and characters. This process takes about four hours. During this period the
young children are taught the value of refinement and manners. Moral and ethical advice is also
About midnight, the fighting starts and the puppets engage in furious battles. There are also
clowns or simpletons who restrain the fighting and make comments upon the meaning of life.
These characters are similar to the role of the joker in the European kings court.
(the rightmost spoon is a caricature of a European or American tourist)
About 3 A.M. the final complications of the plot start to intensify until near the end good
overcomes evil. This final phase may last for five hours.
Unlike Western society which is constantly searching for something new and different (I don't
even like to watch the same movie twice), the Indonesians highly revere these stories and eagerly
attend these shows year after year. Even though there are many variations, most adults are well
aware of these variations and subtleties and know in advance what is going to be said and what is going to happen. The dalang will sometimes modernize the story by introducing jokes, word plays and current events into the story line.
The silversmith is a creation of the society in which he lives. Consequently his work is a product
of this cultural upbringing. For westerners a puppet play that lasted twelve hours, would be
considered a supreme waste of time. Many of the products of our western civilization are
designed to conserve time. The western silver manufacturing company is also a product of our
civilization and constraints. For the western silversmith, time is money, and as a result he wants
and needs to produce the best and biggest product he can with the least expenditure of time
and/or materials. Because of the high cost of labor, the manufacturer must rely on machine rolled
silver, stamping machines and other types of power machinery. The Asain silversmith, on the
other hand, considers his time to be simply part of the age-old continuum of the human drama.
Patience and exactitude are deeply felt aspects of his culture. As a consequence the quality and
hand wrought workmanship of the pieces produced are of the highest quality and on a par with
The pieces pictured are all 800 quality silver but the large pieces are of a very heavy gauge
silver. Although this is below the sterling 925 standard (it is the same as the mid-European
standard), the lower percentage of silver results in a harder more durable metal. When silver
objects were simply another form of wealth ( i.e.. pretty pieces that could be melted down into
coin when financial problems occurred) the higher standard made sense. But if the pieces are
designed for utilitarian use, the lower standard makes more sense.
Observe the pierced pieces. The holes are made one at a time. First a small hole is drilled in the
metal, then a saw blade is inserted through the hole. The shape is then cut out by a sawing action.
In the large squarish shaped serving piece (fig. A) there are forty-eight hand made piercings. If
each piercing only took fifteen minutes, you should consider that it took a master silversmith
twelve hours just to cut out the holes in the one piece. Also note that in the center of the large
serving pieces another one of the stylized puppets is again presented by the clever arrangements
of the cutout holes. This second presentation sometimes includes animals, fish or insects.
Next observe the detailed engraving. The veins in each leaf are shown Each vein
represents a stroke of the engraving tool. On the sides of the piece, detailed engraving (sometimes using a small stamp) forms various designs and patterns. The stylized puppets are also engraved to show their clothing and jewelry. These puppets are also engraved on the back even on the smaller pieces. 800 quality silver is also harder to engrave than is sterling, thus the quality of engraving is even more remarkable.
The stem represents the bamboo plant. This form of hard grass is used in countless ways
throughout society. Bamboo has hundreds of different and varied uses.
The leaves are usually patterned after coffee or tea leaves but are sometimes the leaves of the
various plants found on the many tropical islands.
Most of the pieces are made in three parts, the knop, the stem, and the bowl. On these Javanese
pieces a vertical cut is made on the top and bottom of the stem so that the knop and bowl may be
inserted between the two pieces. This is a more difficult and time consuming approach to solder
two pieces of silver but it creates a much stronger union than is normally found on most serving
The pieces shown are part of an assembled set. All are handworked by various master craftsmen
thus they show individual styling. They were purchased at different times from different sources.
It is not very easy to date Asain silver because the same designs and themes have been used for
centuries and of course, the same quality hand craftsmanship has been passed down from
generation-to-generation. Sometimes traditional native designs are also adapted to the western
export or souvenir market.
Java alone has seven major gold and silver producing areas, and many of these areas have been
known since antiquity. Generations of people have enjoyed owning and using the fine quality
silver produced in this country. I would hope that those of us who have limited ourselves to
European or American silver would consider adding the magnificent silver produced in these
countries to our collections.
All of the spoons shown on this page and many more have been added in a series of 7 exhibits.
Click here to see much better photographs of these incredible silver flatware pieces
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Indonesia by Ruth T. McVey, Yale University,1967
Far Eastern Art by Sherman E. Lee, Prentice Hall, Inc. 1973
Encyclopedia of the Arts by Dagobert P. Runes, Philosophical Library, Inc. 1946
The Art of Indian Asia by Heinrich Zimmer, Princeton University, 1967
National Geographic Magazines:
September 1945, Beverley M. Bowie
September 1929, W. Robert Moore
January 1971, Kenneth MacLeish
May 1961, Helen and Frank Schreider
August 1962, Helen and Frank Schreider
Spoons from around the World, Dorothy Rainwater, Schiffer Publishing LTD, 1992
Creative Gold and Silversmithing, Sharr Choate, Crown Publishers, Inc. 1970
Maverick Guide to Bali & Java, By Donternex, Pelican Publishing Co. 1992
Encyclopedia of World Art, McGraw Hill, 1963Click here to see much better photographs of these incredible silver flatware pieces
Return to SILVER SPOON WORLD