“IMPOSSIBLE!” said an emphatic Guy Bedarida, the French-Italian creative director of Bali-based jewelry brand John Hardy, on the possibility of designing and producing “affordable luxury” silver and gold jewelry pieces outside the famed Indonesian resort island.
“It’s only in Bali where I derive the soul of the product. Even if the inspiration for a collection comes from somewhere else, it is only here where everything comes together.”
Since it was founded by Canadian John Hardy, then a bohemian art student and environmentalist, a couple of decades ago, the jewelry company that carries his name has always drawn its strength and uniqueness from the fact that its key collections are heavily influenced by ancient techniques developed and perfected by the Balinese (see related story on the Oct. 31, 2014 newspaper and online versions of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Lifestyle section).
Hardy sold the company to an American group a few years ago to pursue fulltime environmental work. But Bedarida, whom Hardy pirated from New York-based Van Cleef and Arpels in 1999, has stayed on to become the company’s creative director.
“Except for a factory in Bangkok that takes care of setting gems, every piece is designed and produced here in Bali,” said Bedarida.
Cosmopolitan and a certified city gent, Bedarida was probably the most unlikely person to pack up his bags and leave a dream job in the Big Apple in favor of an unsure future in a tropical island half a world away.
“It is the dream of almost every creative European to experience working in New York,” he said. “I have been based in New York for almost five years when I got a call from John Hardy through a headhunter.”
Before he became one of Van Cleef and Arpels’ chief designers, Bedarida learned on the job as a junior designer for Paris-based Boucheron.
Soon after finishing his liberal arts education in Italy, Bedarida led a happy-go-lucky life in Rome. But even then he knew he already wanted to carve out a career in design.
“It could have been furniture or even fashion,” he said in a recent group interview with Filipino and Hong Kong journalists at John Hardy’s sprawling private compound in Ubud. “In fact, I was bad at school. The only thing I was good at was design.”
If not for his French diplomat father, he probably would have been kicked out from the French-run school he attended in Italy, Bedarida chuckled.
“Because my father was a French cultural attaché, he and my Italian mother entertained a lot. I was exposed early on to beautiful jewelry pieces my father bought for my mom.”
At the same time, the young and impressionable Bedarida grew up hobnobbing with his parents’ friends composed of writers, artists, musicians, diplomats and intellectuals.
“I realized later that the parties they regularly hosted at home also became part of my education,” he said.
It was also his father who reminded him years later that if he wanted to pursue jewelry design seriously, he should move to Paris where, except for Bulgari, many of the biggest and most prestigious jewelry companies were based.
“When I tried my luck in Paris, Mr. Boucheron was kind enough to hire me, an inexperienced designer,” he said. “But he did so on one condition.”
Boucheron required him to sit across a big table and learn from the company’s chief designer, a 75-year-old no-nonsense man who stayed long hours in the office without music and a telephone.
Fresh from his carefree days in Rome, Bedarida, then 24, found the initial stint in Paris pure torture. But he persevered and stayed long enough to learn, appreciate and even enjoy the process.
Right next to the Spartan room he shared with his septuagenarian mentor was Boucheron’s workshop. Bedarida would regularly go there and show his designs and get on-the-spot critiques from the company’s veteran craftsmen on what could and couldn’t be done.
“Could you imagine how strict and snooty they were, especially the French,” he said with a laugh. “But that was how I learned to design. It was fantastic.”
He was also thankful to his elderly mentor. If Bedarida was patient enough to bear with him, the old man was equally patient and generous enough to share his life’s knowledge with his greenhorn pupil.
“For three years, I only designed for one customer—a member of royalty who ordered every month,” he said. “If not for the mentoring, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s why I’m passing on the favor.”
Apart from training potential designers at John Hardy, the company, with Bedarida’s active participation, has a Job for Life program with an orphanage in Bali.
Before they leave the orphanage at 18, interested orphans with potentials are selected to train at John Hardy for a year.
Many of them end up being absorbed by the company. It need not be in the field of design. Some have landed jobs in IT, accounting, sales, office work and even the kitchen.
“One girl, for example, now works as a junior saleslady at our Mulia Hotel boutique,” said Bedarida. “It requires talent and special skills to sell jewelry.”
While growing up, Bedarida also drew inspiration from his maternal grandmother, a plucky woman who constantly reminded him and his siblings of the need for them to learn a skill “that could one day save our lives.”
His mother’s clan came from a well-off aristocratic family in Tuscany. When World War II broke out, the family found themselves penniless.
Their big house is Florence was bombed, and their property in the countryside was appropriated by the government and turned into a hospital.
“None of the children knew how to work because they never worked a day in their lives for anyone,” said Bedarida. “But thanks to my grandmother’s facility to speak several languages, she was hired by the Americans soon after the war as an interpreter.”
Her unique skill and passion for languages—she spoke at least five languages, including English, Russian and French—saved the family from going hungry until such a time when they were all able to get back on their feet.
“I found my skill early on, and it is in design,” he said.
Fast forward to 1999 when Bedarida received a cold call from a headhunter in his Van Cleef and Arpels’ office in Manhattan. The caller asked him if he was interested to meet with a certain jeweler named John Hardy for a possible job as head designer.
“I didn’t even know who Mr. Hardy was,” he said. “I declined right there and then because I was so in love with my job at Van Cleef.”
But Hardy wouldn’t take no for answer. The next day, he phoned Bedarida himself. Instead of giving him an ultimatum, Hardy went for the soft approach by telling him to just fly down to Bali to see for himself what they have there.
As a European who had never set foot in the tropics, Bedarida was intrigued. The invitation became all the more tempting because the all-expense paid trip would allow him to see and experience for himself Bali, a place he had heard so much about from his well-traveled European and American friends.
In the sprit of transparency, he told everything to the president of Van Cleef and Arpels. To Bedarida’s disbelief, the guy told him to accept Hardy’s invitation.
“You’re never going to move to Bali,” Bedarida quoted his then boss. “Accept the invitation. Have them pay for the most beautiful holiday of your life and then come back.”
Bedarida did. Three days after arriving in Bali, he made his decision to accept John Hardy’s offer. It was his boss’ turn to stare at him in disbelief when Bedarida came back to New York a few weeks later to tender his resignation.
What made him leave New York for Bali? Apart from the island’s tropical vibe, Bedarida was drawn to the company’s then small workshop and how its organized and highly trained workers were making everything by hand.
“Of course, we were also doing almost everything by hand at Van Cleef,” he said. “But those pieces cost anywhere between $5,000 and $1 million.”
The challenge of infusing classic European techniques with Bali’s more traditional methods of jewelry-making excited him. The idea of making equally beautiful but more affordable jewelry pieces also appealed to him.
“How much higher could I bring Van Cleef to,” he asked himself. “John Hardy that time was really just beginning to take off, and I found the prospect interesting.”
When his former boss at Van Cleef and Arpels moved later to Graff, he tried twice to convince Bedarida to join him. Bedarida declined on both occasions.
In fact, when he first told his friends in New York of his decision to leave and move to Bali, many of them told him that he’d be coming back to the US in no time begging anyone for a job.
“You know what,” he said. “It never happened. I only fly to Europe and the US for business and personal trips. Fifteen years after I made that decision, I’m still here working in Bali and enjoying every minute of it.”
John Hardy is exclusively distributed in the Philippines by Rustan’s Department Store