The Mala Girl Story

Many people dream of bailing out on their fast-paced lives and moving to an island. Heather Robinson was one of those people. Heather was running a growing property management business and was a busy landlord herself. Her husband was a busy attorney and entrepreneur who had co-founded nearly a dozen companies, and was still active in five ventures. Their lives were the classic American Rat Race.

Here it is, in Heather’s words:

One evening, after a stressful day, my husband quipped, “maybe we should just chuck it all and go live in Bali.” He said it in exasperation after a long day. We were both like hamsters running on a wheel.

His off-the-cuff comment resonated with me. For some reason the very same thought had crossed my mind the day before, but I hadn’t said anything. We had never been to Bali. And, yet here we both had the same idea. I looked at him with shock and said, “I just had that same thought yesterday.” We paused and stared at each other as if we knew that life was about to change.

It took us six months to completely extract from our busy lives. We moved out of a massive house, sold 90% of our possessions, our cars, our precious belongings, and put our keepsakes into a 10x10 storage and paid the bill up for a year.

I sold my business, and my husband extracted from several of his ventures. We bought one-way tickets to Bali and set off on our adventure.

I have known of people who go to Bali to start a new business. We went to Bali to stop doing ventures. We needed to push the reset button. We spent the first two months catching up on sleep. It was truly amazing.

Once I felt rested, we both began to find a new flow. My husband started writing a book, while I got comfortable with being bored. I could think clearly. Food was full of aroma and flavor. It wasn’t just the amazing Balinese food, but the fact that I was now centered. I could taste. I could smell. I could focus. I was present.

People come to Bali to meditate, or practice Yoga, or both. What I found was that my very existence in Bali was meditative. In my former life, I needed to take the time to clear my head, and escape the busy and stressful life that I had created. In Bali, I found a new pace, free of stress and that brought clarity.

We took leisurely motorcycle rides through the tiny villages, surrounded by rice fields, where heron birds picked through the moist paddies looking for bugs and frogs. We would pass near temples and smell the incense and hear the boys singing while practicing their temple instruments. We would see the lovely Balinese women walking while carrying temple offerings effortlessly on their heads.

After many months of exploring Indonesia and other parts of Asia, I decided to explore jewelry design. I had taken some classes in jewelry-making years ago. In Bali, I decided that I could experiment with my jewelry designs, using local craftsmen to execute on my ideas. I designed and created rings, earrings and pendants using natural stones I picked up in our travels. I wasn’t trying to start a venture. I was just doing what gave me pleasure. And, it was a pleasure. Nothing is quite as fulfilling as taking a raw stone, and designing jewelry from scratch, and then seeing (and wearing) the finished product!

One day, by a chance encounter, I met someone who was working in the jewelry business on Bali and Java. One of his expertise was in tassel necklaces, and what are referred to as malas, or Hindu prayer beads. Beaded necklaces are used by all of the major religions. The Christian Rosary. The Muslim Tasbih, the Buddhist Japa and the Hindu Mala. In Bali and surrounding islands, the mala is made from an array of colorful threads, and made of locally sourced materials for beads.

As I began to research the craft, I discovered that the mala necklace could be a medium for creativity that went far beyond the simple silver jewelry I was designing. Mala’s and tassel necklaces could be made of many different materials native to Indonesia, like lava stone from Bali, Lombok pearls, and ganitri seeds from Java. In addition to the array of beads, the tassel itself could provide an unlimited color palette.

The variety of colors and materials used to make malas is a lot like playing with a coloring book and having a pen in every color. There’s a structure to work with, but the variations are limitless. There are really only a few core elements. What makes the mala so fun is the tassel. That provides an additional medium than other jewelry doesn’t have. The tassel gives me an endless playground of color.

Bali is surrounded by organic material that is traditionally used for jewelry-making. Bali and nearby Lombok have abundant lava stone. The locals manufacture round beads from the lava. There is also a rich tradition in natural pearls, used with their imperfections and variations in size, and mixed with other beads, lava and wood. One unique bead is created from the seed of a tree, called the ganitri. The seeds are also known as rudraksha seeds. They are are covered by an outer husk and are typically used in their natural color. The evergreen rudraksha tree grows quickly, and the seeds are plentiful. The seeds make beautiful beads for malas, necklaces and bracelets. However, larger seeds garner a higher value for jewelry-making, and are also traded for their religious and healing power. A single large ganitri seed can be worth hundreds of dollars. The ganitri seed is believed to reduce stress and have other health benefits.

When we decided that our time in Bali was coming to an end, I knew that I wanted to bring this unique product to the U.S. I love the deep history of the mala, and its connection to so many different religions. But, it is also such a simple fashion statement, and bears an elegance that is difficult to find in any other necklace. In fact, what I have noticed is that the mala emanates a magic all its own. You don’t realize it until you put one on, but once you do, you see how it changes the character of an outfit. Each mala has a personality. I’ve been wearing shorts and a tank, but once I put on a mala, I’m ready to go meet friends for a drink. I’ve also taken my little black dress down a notch with a sassy mala that has a turquoise skull as the main guru bead.

I’m feel so blessed to have found a little piece of Bali’s magic and brought it back home with me. I hope others are as enthusiastic as I am about this modern twist on a traditional necklace.