Conserving local crafts while inspiring global amazement, Tulola blends quality and storytelling in unique ways. Prestige chats with the three women behind the brand: Sri Luce Rusna, Happy Salma and Franka Franklin-Makarim
A contemporary artisan crafted brand with the simple quest to craft beautiful jewellery and home accessories, Tulola celebrates rare artisanal skills, timeless design and purity in materials. Sri Luce Rusna started Tulola Studio by working on one-of-a-kind artwear pieces. Since the beginning, there was a major focus on elevating traditional craftsmanship techniques to new levels and celebrating Indonesian metal smithing. Tulola has since amassed a strong following who share a common passion for authentic, artisanal jewellery. The brand even has fans among international celebrities, including the likes of as Tyra Banks, Courtney Love, and Kelly Rowland.
In expanding Tulola until it becomes a reputable brand as it is now, Sri didn’t work alone, as she works together two of her friends: Happy Salma and Franka Franklin-Makarim. These are the three women behind the success of Tulola, each bringing with them their own colours that perfectly complement one another.
Sri first started Tulola in 2007 after the birth of her daughter Putu Lola – Tulola for short. At first, she worked from home with four silversmiths in her garage with the intention of exploring and learning about heritage or artisan crafted motifs and techniques. Interestingly, Sri was no stranger to jewellery-making, as her family has already been in the business for some time. “The opportunity to work with metals was right in front of me,” Sri reminisces. She is, in fact, the daughter of Desak Nyoman Suarti, a successful, internationally-recognized silver maestro in Bali.
This family connection was then what brought Happy Salma into the fold. “It started when I was writing a book about motifs and Mrs. Suarti’s journey, about her craftsmanship through communal motifs. While making the book, Sri helped curate it,” Happy recalls. She and Sri were already friends at the time. “From there, I found out that Sri has the ability to make jewellery, she even had a company to produce silver jewellery,” Happy adds. She then encouraged Sri to make jewellery with unique designs. Sri hesitated at first, but Happy encouraged her and suggested establishing Jakarta as the initial market.
These early conversations resulted in the first collaborative collection by Sri and Happy, Juwita Malam. In creating the collection, Happy came up with the creative concepts, which Sri translated for the artisans. “Ultimately, when the business started to run, it found its identity: that we always started creating a workpiece from a strong concept about Indonesia,” Happy notes. “Then we became overwhelmed, because the try-out worked, the business became bigger and we had to become more serious as the market had also become bigger. Honestly, Sri and I were in a dither; we were perplexed with what to do. Then came Franka.”
Sri was the first to express a desire to work with Franka Franklin-Makarim. She believed that Franka would be the perfect fit for the team and could complement them when it comes to business matters. In Happy’s words, she and Sri didn’t have much experience in the area and didn’t know what to do.
Franka’s story with Tulola started with her as a customer, a friend and a fan. “For years and years knowing Sri and Tulola, I’ve always been a major supporter. I love the incredible design that Sri comes up with. Combining my love for their products, the vision that Sri and Happy had, my passion for Indonesia and what we can do to give back for the craft and the art, then combining it with my background and experience in retail and business … it seems like it’s almost a natural progression to just work together,” Franka expresses.
So, the three wonderful women united to grow Tulola, each playing their own roles. As the Principal Designer and Creative Director, Sri’s work is deeply rooted in design and craftsmanship. Happy as the Creative Conceptor strengthens the brand’s creative concepts and marketing material. And Franka, as the CEO, makes sure the brand stays true to its DNA while building a sustainable business.
“Tulola’s DNA, for me, has always been about expanding and evolving artisanal craftsmanship,” Sri shares. “Craftsmanship, heritage and art as the ultimate luxury. Understanding and appreciating Indonesian beauty in all its forms. Growing the Tulola family of artisans, customers and team members who all share the same passion for Indonesian Heritage and art.”
“Not only are we a design-focused luxury brand, but our endeavours are steeped in the passion to understand our heritage and history and to work to elevate it”
In today’s ever-changing and ever-competitive world, what then separates Tulola from local and international brands with the same basic idea? “For me, it’s always about the quality of the product. Excellence in craftsmanship is what separates us. We continue to focus and invest in this area,” Sri continues. “Our mission, purpose and intentions are what separates us from international brands. Not only are we a design-focused luxury brand, but our endeavours are steeped in the passion to understand our heritage and history and to work to elevate it.”
To this, Happy adds: “What separates us is that we always try to learn and improve, we always try to learn from our predecessors who are geniuses and more skilled. Our artisans also learned the knowledge from their ancestors and we always try to preserve and value that heritage.”
Aside from design, what truly adds life to Tulola’s creations is the storytelling angle. Tulola equips itself with history, literature and everything about Indonesia to form designs that tell stories or are inspired by them. Eventually, these stories become a major draw for customers. One notable source of inspiration is Bumi Manusia by the late author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, which inspired a collection with the same name. The aforementioned Juwita Malam collection, meanwhile, was inspired by the song of the same name by Ismail Marzuki. Then there’s Pita Loka which follows the story of Dyah Pitaloka of the land of Pasundan, Lingkaran Semesta as the manifestation of fate or the justice of man, Ubud which was inspired by the richness of nature and the architecture of Ubud, and Dewi Sri which was based on the philosophy of the rice plant.
Of course, inspiration is nothing without a solid creative process. “Design is a daily discipline for me. I try to spend a little bit of time each day engaged in a creative process of some sort. I try to stockpile ideas during times I am not under pressure for a deadline,” Sri shares. “A collection always starts with Happy, who gives me the story, inspirations and context in which a collection is to be presented. From there, I usually engage in some sort of research about heritage motifs and symbols, and then I begin the physical design process. Happy and I often co-design or concept the way the collection is being presented, for example, digitally or through an event.”
As more and more people come to know the brand, the team also gained more and more feedback. “Some of the most memorable comments I have received was when a piece evokes memories of a customer’s past and heritage,” Sri points out. “Like a grandmother wearing a similar pendant or a legacy jewellery piece from a family member. When our customers view the collections and it evokes memories and feelings, these are always very memorable to me. If we can spark conversations of our heritage and history, I feel that is a successful collection.”
Happy then recalls: “While we were in Yogyakarta, someone came up to me and Sri and said that they were encouraged to become a jewellery designer because of Tulola. Previously, they were still trying to find out where their passion truly lies, whether it was in fashion or bags, but Tulola inspired them that the market for jewellery exists. Listening to that story, we became sure that what we do is more than just enhancing the beauty and confidence of the person, but also inspiring people to find the path of life which are most suitable for them.”
Tulola has been in the business for 14 years now – obviously not a short period of time. “I think Tulola has grown a lot, but first and foremost, our vision and heart stay the same,” Franka observes. “The love of craftsmanship, our love of heritage of this country of craftsmanship has never wavered. I think what’s changed is sort of how we see ourselves – how we see our place in the industry, our place in the heart of the customers. We keep on innovating in terms of quality, in terms of how we connect with customers, how we make sure we further the life of people who work for us … those are the things that we try to improve every single time we try to do something new.”
As the conversation came to a close, thoughts of the future came up. “We definitely want Tulola to be closer to Indonesian customers, not only in the cities on the island of Java, but also in other islands – and we hope to be able to collaborate with as many masters and teachers as possible,” Happy notes. “Indonesia still has thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of motifs and stories that we can learn from. Not only from jewellery motifs, we can also learn from fabric motifs that we can turn into jewellery designs – or vice versa. We also want to make a book or program that can be accessed by everyone. It’s our long-term dream to have a database and proof of the cultural wealth of Indonesia, including through our collaborations, so we can always remember how rich our country’s culture really is.”