copyright 1994

This article was previously printed in Silver Magazine with different pictures.

It may not be reproduced by any means without prior consent.



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

historical dictates.

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



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, 1963

Click here to see much better photographs of these incredible silver flatware pieces