February 23 2012
Cascading down her flawless face, Agatha Simanjuntak-Ellis’s ebony ringlets instantly provoked my envy the night we dined side by side at John Hardy’s eco-chic jewellery factory, set in the rice paddies of Bali. Five years on, I can now admit to fingering those luscious tangled locks for the briefest moment while Simanjuntak-Ellis, at the time Hardy’s international PR director, was engaged in conversation. My own hairdo that day, and all other days back then, involved extremely un-chic elastics and resembled a giant bird’s nest atop my head. How was I to know that Simanjuntak-Ellis also suffered to control her corkscrew torrent in Southeast Asia’s equatorial swelter?
Suffering from what she only half-jokingly called ETHS (“Extremely Thick Hair Syndrome”), this American-educated Indonesian’s quest to find something stylish yet practical with which to put her hair up took a fortuitous turn three years ago while she was on honeymoon at Nihiwatu, on Sumba Island in the Flores Sea, where she stumbled upon a rare trove of antique hair sticks once used as currency. Simanjuntak-Ellis twisted her mane in a knot, secured it with one of these hand-carved family heirlooms, and thus began a year-long journey to discover the traditions of horn carving across the Indonesian archipelago.
Fast forward two years and James & Daughter is available at a trend-setting southern California address, A’maree’s on the Pacific Ocean in Newport Beach, as well as at a scattering of top resort properties around Asia. And my small James & Daughter collection has helped me to master my own locks. Here’s the trick: simply coil your ponytail, aim the stick in, then shift it up to just below the topmost part of the knot, at which point you jam it downwards gently into place. (Thankfully, any scarring from early attempts now remains hidden behind my formerly unruly strands.)
My own much-prized favourites are the gold-tipped, black-horn Philosopher (second picture, $880), the silver Sumba Colt with ruby eyes (first picture, $714), and a white buffalo-horn, silver-tipped stick that I first saw sticking straight up from Simanjuntak-Ellis’s own shiny topknot, called The Brothers ($675). But all of them are uniquely gorgeous, and all handcrafted by artisans in rural Indonesian communities.
I’ve learned that selecting the best horn is all about grain, texture and the subtle layered colouring of striations, and that expert metalsmiths are then marshalled to add silver, gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. But my favourite titbit? A Balinese priest blesses each piece to provide worthy wearers with goodness, strength and protection.