Photo from Iles des Dieux (1954) by Gotthard Schuh
Since the early days of civilization, people of all walks of life and beliefs have adorned themselves with jewelry. However, jewelry serves as more than just an accessory or status symbol. For some, such as the Balinese, jewelry can have symbolic value or significant meaning. A Balinese woman's subeng is one of her distinguishing adornments. A subeng is a traditional Balinese earring, and most modern earring styles pale in comparison to the striking features of Balinese subeng. The ornaments on the subeng are more intricately carved, and they are not just limited to the front part of the earrings. The bearings, or subeng's backs, are also elaborately designed, typically being made large and elongated.
The jewelry’s name, subeng, or suweng, is a Javanese word that signifies "peace," "quiet," and "pure." The word symbolizes the purest wealth of our lives, which is happiness and gratitude for the blessings we have received, because those emotions are the foundation of fulfillment and inner peace. The name alone should allude to how the jewelry is imbued with a great deal of significance for the Balinese people. Not only does it bear profound symbolism, subeng also plays a crucial role in different facets of Balinese culture.
In traditional dances, especially the Rejang Renteng, the subeng is an essential part of the attire. The Rejang Renteng dance symbolizes how everyone on this planet is encouraged to let go of their personal ego. A sacred dance, it is traditionally performed prior to the Melasti ceremony, a self-purification ritual that Balinese Hindus perform to welcome Nyepi day. Subeng is worn as an ear accessory by dancers because of its philosophy: the dancers are to listen to good and holy words or sounds and are unaffected by impure language. This is important since the dance is performed as an offering to God, and the dancers must maintain their holiness and purity throughout the dance.
Moreover, the traditional tooth-filling rite, or metatah, as well as visits to temples, formal events such as weddings, and religious festivals in Bali are also occasions that call for the wearing of the unique earrings. Traditional Balinese jewelry was virtually impossible to source outside Bali for a long time since it was solely worn by Balinese women during Balinese celebrations. Most subeng(s) are created by local Balinese artisans and sold exclusively on the island.
(Photos by Tulola Designs and Subeng Klasik)
However, it didn't take long for the extraordinary artistry of the traditional earrings to gain widespread notice. The subeng earrings are one of the few historical and traditional jewelries from Indonesia that are making a splash in the modern fashion industry. Companies such as Tulola Designs and Subeng Klasik are notably making an effort to reintroduce the stunning jewelry and make it available to a larger clientele. Subeng's increased availability allowed it to find new uses beyond rituals and ceremonies. The ornate earrings, favored by a wide variety of A-listers from celebrities, public figures, to socialites, provide the finishing touch to outfits appropriate for just about any number of formal and informal events.