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Tradition reshaped

Contemporary Turkish jewellery designers are revisiting ancient forms and techniques to create unique modern pieces, as Vanessa H. Larson discovers


by Vanessa H. Larson


Since Ottoman times, jewellery-making skills in Turkey have been passed down from master to apprentice. Tradition has led most jewellers to adhere to the same styles for generations. However, several designers stand out for their exceptional talent and willingness to innovate, resulting in distinctive pieces that can be compared to art.

In less than a decade, Sevan Bıçakçı has become one of Turkey’s most internationally known jewellery designers; his elaborate pieces are in a class of their own. His incredibly detailed rings are especially remarkable. Inspired by Ottoman and Byzantine history and culture, Greek mythology and the natural world, each unique piece is a masterpiece in miniature. Bıçakçı and his team of artisans use intaglio carving techniques to create ‘sculptures’ of architectural monuments, figurines, animals and other subjects inside large gemstones such as citrine, amethyst and moonstone. A whirling dervish seems poised in mid-air; a statue of Aphrodite appears lifelike; a Byzantine church looks three-dimensional. The reversely carved gemstones are set into ring shanks further decorated using traditional techniques ranging from calligraphy and miniature painting to micro-mosaic.

Bıçakçı began training as a master goldsmith’s apprentice at the age of 12 and launched his own collection in 2002. His loyal following includes Brooke Shields and Tory Burch. In addition to his two boutiques in Istanbul and one in Dubai, his pieces are sold at Barneys New York, Browns and other select retailers. In 2009, Bıçakçı was one of nine artists – and the only jewellery designer – shortlisted for the inaugural Jameel Prize, awarded by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to artists and designers inspired by traditional Islamic craftsmanship.

The jewellery company Urart takes an even longer view of history, producing remarkable collections that reference several millennia of the region’s culture and art, from the Ottoman, Byzantine and Seljuk empires to the ancient Sumerians and Phrygians. Founded in 1972, the company took its name from the early Anatolian kingdom of Urartu. While some of Urart’s pieces are exact replicas of specific jewellery items from antiquity, most are original designs that bring a modern interpretation to ancient motifs and styles.

Urart unveils a new collection about once a year, often based on a particular period or culture and using gold, silver and precious or semiprecious stones as appropriate. It has produced jewellery in parallel with historical exhibits at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Grand Palais in Paris. Urart’s 2010 collection, designed in honour of an exhibition of early Qurans at Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, draws on Islamic calligraphy and the Safavid period. Urart’s flagship boutique is in Nişantaşı; its creations have been worn by Hillary Clinton and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Also located in Nişantaşı, Armaggan is a design brand that creates exquisite jewellery that is both contemporary and grounded in Turkish culture. A project of Dr Yalçın Ayaslı of the Turkish Cultural Foundation, Armaggan only opened in 2010 but has already made its name thanks to its signature style and high quality. Its talented designers rework Ottoman and Anatolian motifs such as the crescent moon, Ottoman tulip and Rumi pattern into stylised modern forms that are as eye-catching as they are beautiful.

Armaggan’s collection features striking combinations of cuts and colours of diamonds and precious gems. From stunning one-of-a-kind necklaces, bracelets and earrings to ornate peacock brooches, they are designed to become investment pieces. Armaggan has also formulated its own unique apricot-blond gold, used in bracelets, rings, earrings and cufflinks that display very fine craftsmanship, with filigrees as intricate as lace. Whether diamond or gold, each Armaggan piece is an artistic treasure.

Another successful newcomer on the Turkish jewellery scene is Milka Karaağaçlı, the creator and designer of Kismet. In just two years since its launch, the label has garnered widespread attention. Karaağaçlı adapts Turkish motifs and other symbols to contemporary sensibilities, creating ‘urban reflections of Istanbul’s oriental identity’. Kismet’s Nazar collection incorporates tiny white diamonds and sapphires into gold necklaces, rings and bracelets that beautifully reinterpret the Turkish ‘evil eye’ symbol, while Eter features the crescent moon.

Kismet’s allure lies in its understated attractiveness: slender gold rings that sport a single motif; delicate gold chains with charm pendants. Yet there are bolder pieces, like the sensual gold serpent rings and bracelets, and the Kibele collection, which combines precious gems in indulgent representations of pomegranates. Kismet is sold in Turkey at Harvey Nichols and boutiques including Midnight Express and Atelier 55, as well as by a few retailers overseas.

Transforming the ancient and traditional to lend it new meaning is a rare talent. With so many layers of history and culture to draw on, Turkey’s innovative contemporary designers are assured of inspiration for decades to come.


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