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John Hardy: Bali Guy

9 minute read
Aryn Baker

AT THE JOHN HARDY jewelry factory in Bali, it is daily practice for the executive staff to gather under the shade of a massive banyan tree for lunch. Someone will usually start the meal with a brief greeting or speech. On a recent Tuesday, more than 40 designers, executives, managers and guests paused, forkfuls of organic food halfway to their mouths, as company founder John Hardy stood up to read from a stack of old report cards that his mother had just sent from Canada. “Listless, inattentive, distracted,†he recited. “A daydreamer. Tries his best, but is too slow.†Hardy flipped to the last card in the pile, dated June 22, 1967, and continued. “John has not been successful in completing his requirements to graduate. He will need to repeat 12th grade.†Hardy laid his old report cards on the table and addressed his now silent audience. “At that point in my life, I never would have imagined that I would one day be reading this shameful report to all you here in Bali. Remember, we are all on a journey, and we never know where we may end up. What’s important is that we enjoy the ride.â€

That listless dreamer, who, it was once suggested, might be better suited for mechanics school, is now the visionary behind a $100 million-a-year design business that is also the largest luxury manufacturer in Bali. But Hardy’s journey isn’t just about growing his company; it’s about reimagining a world that is as sensuous, luxurious and sustainable as his cult jewelry.

Like thousands of hippies looking for a way out of the rat race, Hardy washed up on the shores of Bali in the mid-’70s with little more than an art-college degree and a couple of hundred dollars. Designing jewelry quickly became a way to stave off the inevitable return home to Ottawa and a job at his father’s general store. Every bracelet sold was another few days in paradise. Soon Hardy’s unique silver designs became a marker for kindred souls traveling through Asia. “People saw others wearing my jewelry in the airport, and it was like a secret code,†he says. “Without speaking, they knew where the other had been.†The code became a cult following and then, in 1989, became an order from Neiman Marcus, the premier retailer of luxury goods.

By then Hardy had met the love of his life, his muse and the woman who transformed his dreams into marketable realities. She hated him at first. “I was dating Jet Skiers at the time,†Cynthia Hardy, a nonnative, says with a laugh. But she too was looking for something more meaningful in Bali and eventually fell under the spell of John’s vision for a more perfect world—a world in which beauty and luxury could be a solution, not just a commodity. It is her ability to pluck the pearls from John’s million-ideas-a-minute stream of consciousness and make them work that drives not just the engine of their relationship but also their empire.

Today, that empire centers on one of the most innovative and environmentally sustainable factories in Bali. The factory walls, made of recyclable mud brick, are topped with thorny bougainvillea, rather than razor wire. John Hardy calls them a “sustainable solution to the international problem of security.†Workshop roofs are covered with creeping passion-fruit vines to insulate the interiors from the brutal equatorial sun. Their fruit makes for a handy snack. Lotus ponds punctuate factory floors. “If the fish die,†says Hardy, “we know something is wrong.†The compound is designed to be light on the ground. If the Hardys closed shop, the whole area could be back to rice paddies in three months’ time. The breathtaking showroom is a cathedral of curving bamboo, designed by renowned Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan. It’s easy to chuckle when Hardy speaks of building replicas on the roofs of malls in the U.S., turning those wasted acres into gardens and bringing luxury retail to a whole new level—the garden level. But then you realize, he’s serious. And then you start to think, Well, why not?

Spending time with Hardy is like learning to dream: the farfetched suddenly seems possible. He speaks in a never-ending stream of ideas, and if you can follow the dips and eddies and soaring visions of a man who has transformed his world to his exact standards, you may catch a glimpse of your own future. “Can you imagine the potential of a mud-and-bamboo IT center?†he exclaims as he whirls around the packed-dirt floor of his new media office, jabbing fingers at bamboo-reinforced mud walls, woven grass ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking emerald rice paddies. “This entire building comes to less than the cost of our air-conditioning unit.†This, his latest project, comes out of a desire not just to showcase his products but also to promote his vision for sustainable construction. “Anyone who sees how beautiful this is will say, ‘Hey, why am I building with ugly concrete blocks when I could build something beautiful, and cheap too?’ It could be the beginning of a new revolution.â€

The Hardy revolution begins at lunch. Every day more than 700 factory workers dine on fresh organic food raised on the factory grounds. It’s a commitment that Cynthia Hardy takes seriously. “We took a stand on giving our people a really good meal. It nourishes them and gives them energy. It benefits them, and that benefits us,†she says. “That’s the definition of sustainability,†says John. “We don’t want to burn through our workers just because we know we can get more. In the end that doesn’t make sense.â€

Hardy slips a stunning silver-and-diamond pavé cuff off his wife’s wrist and holds it up to the light. It looks as if some silver-fingered Midas brushed against a bamboo trellis covered in climbing flowers. “In 200 years,†he says, “you will see this on the block at Sotheby’s.†He is not speaking of the design but of the exquisite craftsmanship. One of the great luxuries of working in Bali is the ability to draw from a tradition of jewelry making that goes back thousands of years—and the ability to lure Europe’s greatest designers with the promise of working in paradise. Hardy’s designers number in the eighties, something unheard of for most jewelry companies. That allows for an unparalleled attention to detail, such as the back of a brooch that is just as beautiful as the front. “It’s like a little secret for the wearer alone,†says creative director Guy Bedarida. “That’s our trademark.â€

It’s also one of the reasons John Hardy jewelry has such a following. Customers feel an intensely personal bond with their pieces. Hardy says it’s because the jewelry has soul, something he attributes to the fact that everything he designs is handmade. “Our jewelry is more than the sum of its parts,†he says. “The man who carved your bracelet is proud of it.†That’s Hardy’s critical ingredient for luxury: the hand-hewn imperfections that turn a thing of beauty into a work of art.

“We could make this all by machine,†says Bedarida, “but it would be a kind of death. Death of tradition, and death of soul.†Not that the latest high-tech casting machines don’t exist on the factory floor; they just share space with village women wielding toothpick paintbrushes and men pounding silver beads onto titanium ribbon with wooden mallets.

“That’s what I love about how we make our jewelry,†says Cynthia Hardy. “You have these wonderful craftspeople descended from artisans who worked for the kings of Bali hundreds of years ago sitting down with ceramic polymer from Liechtenstein. It’s 21st century technology combined with the craftsmanship and talents of the 19th century.â€

If the John Hardy factory is 21st century, the John Hardy home could be the future—or at least the Hardy vision of a sustainable, luxurious future. The entire structure is built of recycled hardwoods, including old ironwood telephone poles. It appears to float above an organic garden, and the ground floor has no walls, allowing for an unobstructed view over endless rice paddies.

A day with the Hardys is living life as it should be lived: effortless, peaceful, sensuous. But it also takes into account actions and their repercussions. On the third anniversary of the terrible bombings in Bali that took 202 lives, and 11 days after another bombing that rattled the Balinese people’s already shaky confidence, the Hardys discussed how they were helping their adopted home. “At first I thought about raising money to build a hospital,†says Cynthia. “But John said that we could do a better job looking after our own workers. So that’s where we started.â€

Now they are working on scholarship programs for factory workers, bringing in midwives to educate young mothers about breast feeding, providing better health care and starting yoga classes. “The idea is to be an example to the other employers on the island,†she says. “Like we are with our organic farming,†says John. And then he pauses. “What if we could turn all of Bali organic? What would it take? Imagine what would happen to the health of our children, our environment, if we just took this little island and made it Organic Experiment No. 1.†His wife smiles and nods her head. Already the gears are falling into place. It may sound like the ravings of a utopian dreamer. But then, what if?





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