The Grand Bazaar is the largest covered market in the world and also Europe’s most-visited tourist attraction. The 15 million who visit every year are drawn by the profusion of gold, leather, antiques, carpets, ceramics, and jewelry in the bazaar’s over 4,000 shops. But there is another world in the bazaar that tourists cannot see – the network of artisanal masters and workshops that continues a tradition of over 500 years. The Rezan Has Museum’s exhibition “Gem and Craft: in Pursuit of the Artisans at the Grand Bazaar” invites us into the workshops of the bazaar’s most exceptional jewelry craftsmen through their works and stories.
Running until April 30, the exhibition is the product of two years’ research by academics Ayşe Orlandi and Yonca Erkan. One aim of this project was to evaluate the craftsmen for potential inclusion on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The academics met with 57 craftsmen around the Grand Bazaar and compiled a comprehensive report. Their conclusion was that, in spite of their long history and international success, the Grand Bazaar jewelers are under threat. Only by appreciating their cultural value can we keep these artisanal trades alive for the next generation – and protect the spirit of the bazaar itself.
Master and apprentice
The main danger for this trade is a lack of apprentices to carry on the work. “One of the results of our research project shows that only one in three workshops has an apprentice now. These masters are the last generation,” Erkan told The Guide Istanbul. “And even if they have an apprentice, there’s no guarantee that every apprentice will become a master. Today’s masters were chosen and trained out of tens of other apprentices.”
Traditionally, apprentices begin full-time work at a young age – all of the current masters left education after primary school. That is one of several reasons for young people to choose other careers, says Erkan. “The new generation doesn’t have that kind of patience. For the first 10 years, the apprentice only watches the master. Before that he doesn’t pick up a tool or work any metal… There’s also an incredible system of trust in the workshops, because you’re giving a small child stones that are worth thousands of dollars. Young people still walk from workshop to workshop in the Grand Bazaar with precious stones in their pockets. So for there to be trust, the apprentice has to be family, a relative, or someone you know.”
Following a trade associated with their ethnicity since the Ottoman era, the vast majority of jewelers are Armenians or Greeks. As the non-Muslim population decreases in Turkey, so the masters’ pool of relatives shrinks until there are few potential apprentices left. Many of the young men who do become apprentices later emigrate to the US, says Erkan. These issues are precisely why Istanbul’s visitors and locals must recognize these masters and support them as much as possible. Without its masters, the Grand Bazaar is in danger of losing its soul.
Jewelers to the stars
“At the center is a master we call the sadekar. He’s the person who shapes the raw material, metal or stone. He coordinates where the material has to go after him, and then the product also returns to the sadekar at the end of the process. He then provides it to the customer or gives it to a shop owner. These shops are what we see when we walk around the Grand Bazaar. But behind those shops is actually a web of production lines – each product is the work of four or five workshops,” Erkan explains. The sadekar is a designer-craftsman who outsources specific tasks to other masters, such as the mıhlayıcı who mounts precious stones or the kalemkar who does the engraving.
One of the world-famous names in the exhibition is Avedis Kender, who designed and produced a brooch that was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. Master Sevan Bıçakçı is now an international star with clients from Liz Hurley to Mariah Carey. Described as a “cult figure” by Erkan, Berç Kazancı produced items for the wife of a Turkish president and also rings for iconic singer Zeki Müren. But like many of the bazaar masters, Kazancı keeps no archive of his work and has not developed a brand to promote himself. It was only by researching Zeki Müren’s visual archive that the exhibition curators realized it was Kazancı’s rings on the album covers. Through this exhibition, the curators hope to preserve these stories that would otherwise be forgotten.
In recent years, concerns have been raised about jewelry workshops around the bazaar using toxic chemicals. This has produced pressure on the workshops to move outside the city center. Thankfully the workshops have accepted new safety standards, and the masters remain for now. As Erkan explains, the masters and the bazaar have a symbiotic relationship that cannot be replicated anywhere else. “It’s a creative cluster – the human relationships there nourish that creativity. They all say that whenever they go out, they know what everyone else is doing. As soon as they move into an isolated, factory-like environment, it’s very likely that inspiration will disappear.”