Carolyn Tyler: reinventing a life in Bali

Carolyn Tyler wasn’t always known for her jewelry designs. She began her career as a graphic designer and ran an advertising agency, zooming around in her BMW, making deals on her car phone between appointments. When she could find time, she would ride her horse along the surf from her beachside home in Santa Barbara to a shorefront restaurant, listen to a friend sing jazz, then ride home by moonlight.

Carolyn Tyler at home in Ubud, Bali

But after a decade of producing ad campaigns and working 18-hour days, she began to burn out. In 1988, newly divorced, she took off for Asia, stopping off in Bali for a few days. “The airport in Denpasar was just a funky, little Third World airport then, but the minute my foot hit the tarmac, it was as if every cell in my body woke up,” she recalls. “This voice in my head said ‘You’re home.'”

Tyler returned to Bali every year after that. “Bali is like a huge natural playground for the child in me. As a kid I used to pretend I lived in the jungle. I’d throw my mom’s costume jewelry in the pool, get a big abalone shell, dive in and scoop it up. I had a thing for moss, ferns and tropical foliage. I always imagined living in a hobbit land with streams and ponds and frogs. Bali was like my childhood fantasy in living color.”

Finally, after a bad breakup and the death of her mother, she decided to relocate there. She refinanced her house and packed her belongings. But before she left, a jewelry designer friend convinced her to come to the Tucson gem shows. “When I arrived, she was white as a sheet, bags packed, keys in hand,” Tyler recounts. “She said, ‘My mother had a heart attack and I have to leave. Please stay for 10 days and buy my stones.’ She handed me a list and said, ‘You’ll learn. Just spend the first seven days looking. Here are the prices you should pay.’

“By the end of that week, I was completely into gemstones,” Tyler says. “I was addicted.” On top of the stones she bought for her friend, she spent $5000 on gems. A month later, she arrived in Bali with a bag of rocks and no idea how to set them. Fortunately, she had landed on an island inhabited by some of the world’s most skilled – and least expensive – goldsmiths.

Opal Fishnet necklace by Carolyn Tyler (photo courtesy Carolyn Tyler)

Still grieving, she threw herself into manic creativity. By day she worked on her riverside house, then designed jewelry into the wee hours. After a year or so, she had 80 pieces and fellow ex-pat Lee Downey invited her to share his booth at the Tucson Gem Shows. That was the year someone decided to start his own gallery, showed up in Tucson and bought out the entire inventory of 23 designers. His checks bore no address or phone number and a few people ripped theirs up. “But mine cleared within two days – for $67,000,” Tyler says. “I was back in business.”

After that, her jewelry business took off. She formed the pool of goldsmiths that work with her today – about a dozen permanent and another dozen on call, as work flow merits. At one point, she attempted to organize her goldsmiths into a small factory to save on equipment, but found the quality of their work dropped. “They’re much happier working at home with their wives and kids around, and it shows in the jewelry.”

These days, her production system is on autopilot. Tyler does most of her designing after sundown. “That’s when the phone stops ringing and it’s just me. I put on some good, trancey music or some blues or slow jazz. The fireflies are coming in. It’s like a dream. I get out all my stones and spread them on the table.

Ramses opal ring by Carolyn Tyler, inspired by treasure from an Egyptian archaeological dig (photo courtesy Carolyn Tyler)

“Usually I pick a central stone, look at the colors in it, pull out side stones. I just trace the stone and sit there with it, see if it wants to be a pin or a pendant, or both. Usually it’s pretty obvious if it’s a ring or earrings. I love mixing and matching colors, especially combinations like purple and chartreuse or orange and purple – slightly jarring but satisfying.”

Then she weighs the stones, puts them in plastic bags “like TV dinners” with little drawings, carefully labeled with detailed instructions – right down to the proper wire gauges. “It’s all spelled out as much as possible because if I don’t, they will often take liberties with the designs.”

Her designs reflect her studies of ancient cultures – she has a degree in archaeology and cultural anthropology – and the natural beauty around her. “It isn’t the visual sense of the people in Bali that inspires me, it’s the land itself, the texture of the air, the moisture and the scent, all the flowers. I love the moss on the brick, the beautiful old patina.”

“You get a lot of support for being artistic in Bali, but the Balinese are not particularly cut out for free thinking in terms of creativity. They are raised to respect tradition. It’s not in their culture to ‘think outside the box.’ It’s the marriage of Western ingenuity with the Asian attention to detail and perfectionism that creates these crafts we’re all doing over there.”

12 comments for “Carolyn Tyler: reinventing a life in Bali

  1. Carol Huntington
    September 27, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Cathleen,

    I was on a search for american jewelry designers living in Bali… and come upon your article! I’m traveling to Bali the first of November and am trying to learn everything I can about it. Your article was so informative, and the pics are beautiful. I’m a novice metalsmith… but completely captured by it.

    So thank you… and I signed up for your RSS feed!

  2. Cathleen McCarthy
    September 27, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks, Carol! You’ll love Bali – lucky you. Don’t miss Treasures Gallery in Ubud, where you can find Carolyn’s jewelry and other gorgeous stuff by local ex-pats.

  3. Carol Huntington
    September 27, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for the info… I’ll put it on my list of must sees!

  4. January 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Hi Cathleen– Happy 2012! Thank you for this wonderful article– I hadn’t read it until now. I love your site! Would you like to see the new designs I have just produced? I am so excited to be moving in a more spiritual, less decorative direction with my work. I’m using amulets and icons I find in my travels to make lockets and rings, and they have been really popular on my recent trunk show tour around the country in Neiman Marcus and Saks.
    Hope all is well in your world,
    Best, Carolyn

  5. Cathleen McCarthy
    January 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Hi Carolyn! Yes, please. I’ll be in touch.

  6. Sue Foster-Clarke
    February 12, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Hi Carolyn,
    I am looking for wholesale jewellery manufacturers in Bali. I will be visiting in late March. Can you please email me as I would be interested in meeting with you and viewing your product
    Kind Regards
    Sue

  7. Mary Jane Ruch
    April 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Hello, Carolyn! We met in Vail in January when you had your trunk show. My husband and I bought the ring with the oval, green stone that we tested over and over trying to zero in on what it was. I have loved wearing it and get compliments on it all the time. I so enjoyed talking with you and wish we could have had dinner together so icould hear more about Bali and your travels. I am dreaming of an exotic trip and remembered your villa. I can’t put my hands on the business card you gave me with the web address for your properties. Could you email it to me? I hope this finds you well and feeling inspired to create more of your gorgeous designs!

  8. Cathleen McCarthy
    April 14, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    You can contact Carolyn via her website: http://www.carolyntyler.com/

  9. August 30, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Since my last trip to bali.. I’m dreaming of the day i relocate and work from there full time..
    I do love my metal casters over there .. absolutely lovely people and incredible handiwork.
    Marsdafavela.com
    :)

  10. Rosemarie Maalouf
    July 1, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Dear Carolyn I lost your email ,I’m in Honduras at the present and will liked to get in you’ve
    Ch with you ,hope you can replay back I lost your personal email.
    First of all I hope your doing well the most important.
    Thank you and hope to hear fron you .
    Regards.
    Rosemarie Maalouf
    From Honduras y bough from you and we all now the Cohen family from Nicaragua .
    Thank you

  11. July 20, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Dear Rosemarie,
    I just now saw that you sent a message to me through the online magazine,
    Jewelry Loupe. It is such a nice surprise to hear from you, and to know
    that you are friends with the Cohens from Nicaragua. We love them, too–
    they are a fantastic family.
    I have not been back to Coral Gables in a couple of years, but I hope we
    can meet again somewhere. Please let me know if there is anything you need
    or would like to order in jewelry. I have some really beautiful new things,
    and if you tell me what you like, I can send pictures.
    Hoping to hear from you soon,
    Carolyn
    ps: feel free to email me directly at carolyntyler@gmail.com

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