Our contributor Taufan Wijaya takes us to Kotagede, the mecca of silversmithing in Yogyakarta, Central Java...
As the center of silver handicrafts in Yogyakarta, Kotagede has its own charm, but somehow it is often taken for granted by the locals. I have to admit that I used to be one of those people – I just visited Kotagede about six months ago despite the fact that my grandfather was actually born and raised in that area. Truth be told, I used to pass through Kotagede all the time and saw many silversmiths in the area, but never had the time to stop by to investigate closer. Then one day my curiosity got the best of me and I decided it was time to explore the city of my ancestor’s.
From The Kingdom Of Mataram
Many of the silversmith’s buildings in Kotagede date back centuries, and most are built with thick walls and massive wooden blocks. Some of the workshops are even housed in preserved buildings that are authentic to Yogyakarta, and have become a part of the beginning of this cultural town. Some “limasan” houses are still in a good shape and have been really well preserved with the help of the government. In fact, they have now become a tourist destination.
“This is where the Mataram Kingdom blossomed after it was divided from the Surakarta Palace,” said Budi, one of the owners of an old house in Kotagede that I met. His statement explains why this area is so rich with historical heritage, like the Mataram Kings Cemetery and artifacts from the Mataram Kingdom during the 16th century. It was in the 18th century that the Mataram Palace appointed Kotagede a silver handicraft center in order to meet the palace’s needs.
Silver accessories became quite popular in Indonesia just after the reformation in 1998. The silver trend was not closely related to politics though – I believe the price of gold at that time went up so drastically that silver became the next big thing in the jewelry industry. After a period of time the silver handicraft industry slowly went out of spotlight and Kotagede became known merely as a place where silver crafts used to be made. But during my visit I found out that there are still many silversmiths living and working there – some still remain as small family businesses while others have joined big silver companies.
Meet The Silversmiths
I took some time to visit a big workshop and watched one of the silversmiths, Heri by name, who had just finished a brooch that morning. The workshop Heri works in is adjacent to a showroom that opens at 8.30 a.m. – the showroom is divided into several rooms, each designated to display a type of jewelry; for instance, one room is full of rings, while the other is for necklaces.
What captivated me the most were the beautiful and colorful old tiles from the colonial era that were laid under an old credenza that was maybe of the same age as the tiles. When noon arrived, Heri’s colleagues started to come to work. Some of them are temporary workers who are hired to finish a massive order. The silversmiths work as a team, each with his or her own specific task: to weld, to shape the silver wire, to design and more.
I was then off to a different workshop, and found Jumiyem (43) who was transforming tangled wires into a butterfly. Working at one of the wooden tables in the workshop, she patiently bent the wire with tweezers to form a circle. Jumiyem has worked there for six years, despite the fact that she did not take any formal courses to develop her skills – she learned all about being a silversmith from her peers.
Making The Silver
Jewelry and handicrafts have to go through a long process before they are displayed in the showroom. The silver stock has to be mixed with 7.5 percent cooper through a melting process – this chemical reaction is needed to produce silver that is not too soft. The color will then change to dull brown – then it is ready to cut; a bar shape for bracelets or other accessories and a wire for small and detailed jewelry pieces.
The silversmith then crafts the material according to the design – for instance, a detailed accessory is made by connecting several silver wires together. The connections are glued then welded. A simple ring takes hours to make, while an item with detailed design such as a miniature of andong (a horse carriage) or animal figures – that are also adorned with gemstones like sapphire – take weeks to create. As for wall decorations, sometimes a silversmith needs to forge the silver with heat.
After the welding process, the silver item need to be cleaned – “lerak”, which is usually used to wash batik is also used to wash and polish silver. The silver needs to be polished until foam appears and then washed with water to make the silver shine brightly.
It seems that the silver industry in Kotagede is capable of fulfilling the market demand pretty well. Not only are the silversmiths able to craft items with stunning designs, but the big shops also have sales staff that are fluent in foreign languages such as English, Japanese, French and others – and these language skills are of course important to help bring Indonesia’s jewelry onto the international stage.
In the modern times, some traditional skills may be prone to disappearing because of regeneration issues, but that is not the case with the silversmithing industry in Kotagede. Many young people are still interested in learning the silver craft in Kotagede, and every day cars and rickshaws bring travelers and tourists to visit the craft shops. So as long as the jewelry industry stays alive, these talented silversmiths will continue to produce great art works.
Contributor : Taufan Wijaya
Magazine issue > Beyond Bali