Turkey’s contemporary designers draw on a rich and diverse heritage of jewellery making. Isuwa, Tohum Design and Der Liebling are some of the jewellery labels to know
Jewellery has long been intertwined with Turkey’s history, from pieces worn by Anatolia’s ancient Hittite people to the lavish jewellery associated with the Ottoman empire. Nowadays Turkey produces around 250 to 300 tons of gold jewellery each year, according to Rotaforte, the organisation behind the biannual Istanbul Jewelry Show, and is a global leader in gold processing. Precious metals and jewellery are among the country’s key export products, but there’s also significant internal consumption due to the Turkish cultural tradition of buying gold. The precious metal is considered a worthwhile investment, and, in some cases, is still used for trading. Additionally, gold, often in the form of jewellery, is traditionally given at Turkish weddings. These historical, cultural and economic factors provide strong foundations for the country’s contemporary jewellery designers, who are as diverse as they are plentiful, with offerings at all price points.
Snem Yıldırım, who co-founded Isuwa with her sister Didem Yıldırım, says that jewellery is omnipresent in Turkey; museums display pieces that dates back as far as the Neolithic and the roots of modern designs can be seen in the changes and developments over the centuries. ‘Today jewellery production still continues in Anatolia in cities such as Mardin and Trabzon, and also in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, at jewellery ateliers where this tradition still survives.’
Emblematic of this longstanding heritage, the famous Grand Bazaar market is often cited as an influence on contemporary jewellery design. Der Liebling, for example, sprang from a chance encounter between founder Banu Kent and a jewellery craftsman from the Grand Bazaar; Kent learned her trade under his tutelage, appropriating the traditional aspects of the craft to create modern pieces under her own brand.
Snem Yıldırım contextualises Isuwa within the framework of this heritage. ‘We produce contemporary works using the facilities and techniques of today by interpreting this tradition and taking references from the past. We are carrying out a mission in which we sustain this historic process.’
Very much aware of Turkey’s history of jewellery making, the Yıldırım sisters borrow from other creative fields to produce jewellery that is profoundly modern. ‘We shape our works by moving out of traditional jewellery methods through production techniques we get from other disciplines such as fine arts, architecture and design,’ says Snem Yıldırım.
Different types of work undertaken by Anatolian women inspire Isuwa’s collections. For instance, the handmade architectural earrings and necklaces from the Kolan collection evoke the working conditions and heavy loads carried by women from the Anatolian region of the same name, while Isuwa’s colourful Oya designs are based on traditional Anatolian lacework, a craft that women undertook as a means of expression. Isuwa is the ancient Hittite name for a region of Anatolia, and the brand tells the story of many aspects of Turkish and Anatolian history, not just that of jewellery.
While the Grand Bazaar is among Istanbul’s must-visit destinations, it’s also interesting to head off the beaten track; contemporary designers have ateliers and showrooms dotted across the city. Der Liebling, for example, is based in the vibrant Galata neighbourhood. Tohum Design’s showroom is located in the Nişantaşı district; customers can visit by appointment. Verda Alaton founded the brand in 2009, after quitting a career in the corporate world. ‘Designing has been second nature to me since my childhood,’ she says. ‘My hobby was to find natural and unusual pieces and transform them into wearable pieces.’
This intrinsic love for design, paired with a love for natural beauty, has led to collections such as the sea-inspired Concha, which has become one of the designer’s signatures. Although her brand is heavily inspired by Africa and her travels, Alaton remains firmly rooted in Istanbul. ‘Istanbul, my home town, is my definition of life inspiration. Although Tohum is not a brand with oriental expressions, it has its roots based in a very powerful city – a city connecting continents, bringing people together over thousands of years of history.’
This richness results from Istanbul and, indeed, Turkey itself, being a crossroads for people and cultures; it helps define brands’ identities, as they negotiate the balancing act of combining past, present and future.