Eye straining, elbow grease, effort, and art and a human. Those still standing with sweat of their foreheads and labour of their hands. Engaged in a life struggle by reproducing with radiance of their eyes what was nearly forgotten in 21st century. Artisans of mother-of-pearl, calligraphy, hand-printed scarves, ironworks, Turkish ceramics, marbling, gilding, book binding, and countless many more. They were the leading professionals of the ages past. Now most are forgotten. Not to be opened again, shutters of their small shops are closing. But there are those who refuse to give up.
Resisting the era, they are still working and sustaining the traditions of their vocations. They are the handful warriors guarding the past and passing on to the new generations what they have learned from their ancestors and masters. They are those who became artisans with the belief that their art will be a gold bracelet inherited by seven generations. Following their heart they keep on living history and enable others to do the same. They are the masters who defy centuries. Then, now let’s listen to what they want, and what they say.
“I was a goldsmith when I became interested in pearl engraving in 1998. It was kind of hobby for me at the beginning, but in time it became my career and I undertook it. Because I observed that the number of masters dealing with pearl engraving was very few, I wanted to be a bridge to carry this art from past to future in the best way I could do and I decided to go in it. The pearl pieces I saw in hands of the musical instrument decorators impressed me. Because they had a different glitter and on face of the pearl you could see the colors of a rainbow.
I mean, the reflection of the colors were different based on the way you hold a piece of pearl; this was very impressive and I decided to change my career into a pearl engraver then. First I began with small scale works. I tried to cut pieces of pearls with a fret saw. I tried to draw attention of the masters around me and I started doing some research to have my work improved, which masters did what, how did this art develop until today and what else could be done? I began to visit the museums to observe the works of the past masters.
I found out that the masters were invited from Damascus to Istanbul in 15th Century. Workshops were provided for these masters to develop their art. First the pearl engraving was used on the door-leaves of the mosques, then on the windows, and on the balustrades of the mausoleums and finally on the jewelry boxes, reading desks and on the Koran covers. The pearl comes from the sea as the crust of the oyster. Inside the oyster is spectacular, the outer side needs to be cleaned; when you clean it with emery, fighting against the dust coming out of it, both sides are becoming shiny, shimmering.
The pre-process stage starts with this cleaning. The parts needed are cut from the oyster. For example, if we need a pattern of 4×4 cm or 5×5 cm, we cut the oyster a little larger to provide space for shaping the pattern. The pattern drawn before is glued to the surface of the oyster and becomes ready to be cut. This takes a really serious time in fact. If we think of the different thicknesses of the sides of the piece cut off from here, in order to calibrate it evenly, I grind it entirely smooth with sandpaper until both sides are approximately 1,5 – 2 millimeters, and I glue the prepared design on the surface readying it for cutting.
Beyond this point is not so easy. Next comes to shape the oyster parts. During my research, I discovered that the pearl engraving in Istanbul is different than those performed in the other cities and countries. The material used in European countries is quite different and so are the ways of use and the shapes frequently used. For example, Ottomans use mother of pearl, crust of sea turtle, ivory and various valuable woods, colorful woods. The fret saw, generally used in jewelry, cuts the mother of pearl very well since it has dense tines. It is a little complex as for the composition.
After emptying inside the oyster and cutting the sides, the other material we are going to use now is the crust of the sea turtle. These are the materials now we use during restoration works. Use of the crust is not legal now and it is difficult to find, unfortunately. We can use it for restoration purposes, only. In order to make the spots more visible we fix some gold leaves beneath the crust. And, in order to cut a piece from the crust, we take it and put the pattern on the crust, we outline the inner pattern with use of a pencil, and without gluing any paper, we can cut it in more practical and faster ways. And this can be… Continuing on the pattern.
This fork I am showing you is an example of my early works. It is full of memories for me. In order to make use of natural materials in modern times, and to shed light to the future from the past, I have used horns at the tip of this fork. And the grip of the fork, long time ago, I did it using some animal foot bones engraved with mother of pearl with some rose silver support. This is one of my works and God willing I shall send it to Canada when it is complete. I need to cover its interior with velvet. And this is a box I made from massive walnut tree wood, with embedded mother-of-pearl in the form of delicate tulips.
For what other purpose can we use mother-of-pearl? For example, it is possible to return to life a necklace with white embedded mother-of-pearl inside a green one. Also, I made these with grooving of white mother-of-pearl knives on silver accessories in order to introduce and explain to people that they can use these comfortably in their daily lives, and by using the other pieces with various colors, such as what we call “red avalon” to obtain the color red, I am changing the color style. Here, in the central part of this necklace, I used this. The green avalon of the green mother of pearl, I used it on the sides of the crown. Then I have made it from white mother of pearl.
The collectors are keeping on ordering us items with their own taste, in order to help us survive in these days. In order to continue this art, we need a little support from the state. Okay, we are doing out best, struggling, and trying to raise apprentices and to promote this art. In order to keep this craft on, I am trying to respond every demand and trying to raise apprentices as much as my financial situation permits. When I run short of money, I am giving courses and teaching this art to make money. Because, if some others learn and keep it on, we will have our culture be preserved. We can maintain our culture without sacrificing personal values and pass it on to the following generations.
It is necessary to have the government support to teach these in vocational schools and this will also provide some support to the masters engaged in this type of work. Teaching this at a school will provide me with economic support, and if only several students carry this onward after me, this will cause the development of more artisans, and more artworks will be created and carried over to the subsequent generations.”
Now there’s a woman that has struggled with it as a book binder. Let’s listen to what she says, and what she wants.
“We can say that I entered this work by attending to study in “Traditional Turkish Arts” Department of Mimar Sinan University in 1994. Later on, in 1999 I graduated from the graduate school finishing my master’s thesis. Since 2000 – 2004 I have been working here in my workshop. Here I am binding and repairing the books of my customers. It is not only bookbinding, I am restoring the books as well. I did not think there would be this much work for restoration when I opened the workshop first. The customers bring their old books, handwritten manuscripts and the Koran inherited from their grandfathers, as I told.
We assess the degree of wearing and repairing them, and based on their choice we renew the cover of the books. We’re doing partly what should be done and partly what the customers request. We’re trying to find a way in between. This book was renewed almost completely, its rulers and backs were all renewed. The footband was woven again. This weave here is called “footband”. It helps to hold the forms of the book together and tightly, besides it is aesthetically good looking. When we open and close the book, the footband strengthens the book against wearing and falling into pieces. And the backs of the book are measured. These are the backs like tailored specially for the book.
This cover will be restored, the pieces to be used are cleaned and prepared beforehand, the sides of the cover are clean and ready. In these years the courses on bookbinding increased. It is very nice to hear about it. On the other hand, these courses are for hobbyists, I think we need more bookbinders to be employed by the state. The state must reserve budgets to train and to employ well trained and educated personnel for these works. The source could be either the vocational schools or the departments of the universities. They can not be employed for this purpose, I do not know why they only organize courses for hobbyists and produce in 3-5 months people called illuminator or something like that. This is wrong I mean.
We studied this art in the academy, and the discipline is not the same in both these places. No way. In my opinion, in order to draw attention of people to these areas, they must create some methods. They must attract people, not disincline. Unfortunately, we do not have places to obtain personnel. Because these departments are traditional departments and they are one by one being shut down. And I think, this is partly because of the computers, the computers invaded all sides of our lives, and people prefer such skills, the new generation prefers desk work with a computer. Instead of working with their hands, engraving the patterns, making new designs and painting gold with a brush, even maybe you have seen in movies, they grind the gold with their hands.
However, they prefer desk work. This is a feature of the modern times and we can not resist for this reason. What we must do, on the other hand, is to help the young people who want to learn about these arts, who is in need to learn. These arts of ours have been forgotten in fact. In the last 10 years, we experienced a look back, remembering the old things. This is something to make us happy. We entered the field when it was just a little rejuvenated. There was a return to this art, but our teachers had entered this field when things were near impossible and they left it to us. Now they are being remembered. When art was mentioned in the recent past, we used to see commentary and art exhibitions which followed western art forms.
But our arts of gilding, calligraphy, miniatures, marbling and book binding already includes the many elements of western art. Lately this is being realized. For this reason we are very happy. I think we are lucky. And I want to say this to those who are going to follow after us. They are going to inherit this art form in a much better condition than we did. We want to pass it on in even better conditions because this is really necessary. In the libraries of our country there are very nice and rare handwritten manuscripts; they need to be studied and besides introduced to the world, but these books must be preserved first of all and this is the work of higher authorities of course. The values here are decreasing.”