The Ottoman Empire’s bejeweled masterpieces give us tantalizing glimpses into Istanbul’s multi-ethnic past, and its cultural legacy is the exquisite jewelry being made by the city’s contemporary designers and craftsmen.
By Jane Akatay
Photos by Merve Göral
Spanning six centuries, it is generally acknowledged that jewelry making in the Ottoman Empire was at its creative zenith in the sixteenth century. As a young prince, Sultan Süleyman I had learnt the craft in Trabzon and when he ascended to the throne in 1520, following in the footsteps of his father Sultan Selim I,
he established ateliers in Istanbul—attracting the expanding empire’s finest jewelers and craftsmen.
A passionate advocate and patron of this refined art, Süleyman the Magnificent—as he is also known—brought as many as 90 craftsmen, including 60 goldsmiths and 30 jewelers, from all over the world to work in the ateliers of the Topkapı Palace.
Likewise, spectacular objects and jewelry were produced in the hans of the Grand Bazaar—small businesses around shady courtyards in the Grand Bazaar. Istanbul became the beating cultural heart of the empire, attracting legendary jewelers and craftsmen—often Armenians, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Slavs, and Jews.
These skilled artisans made many of the beautiful items that we still marvel at today, ranging from weaponry and armor, to hairbrushes, clothing, dining ware, and chess sets. They also crafted an array of exquisite personal possessions, like pens and sweetmeat caskets. In the sixteenth century, inspiration for these luxurious items came in various forms; motifs reflecting nature were popular, as were—more unusually—themes harking back to the dynasty’s nomadic past.
The Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1922 and, during the first decades of the Turkish Republic, times were hard. Istanbul’s workshops went into decline and there was a tendency towards mass-produced jewelry. But even so, the multi-ethnic legacy never abandoned Istanbul; the city remained home to many talented and innovative craftsmen, passing their skills on to new generations.
One of them is Arman Suciyan, who in 1988 at the age of 15, with help from family contacts within the Armenian jewelry community, made a decision that changed his life forever. “It was through a close family friend of ours, who recommended me as an apprentice to Misak Toros,” Suciyan told The Guide Istanbul. “Like many master craftsmen, his family had been in the jewelry making business for four generations,” he said.
Toros was the last of his lineage. As well as continuing the family business, Toros was also a theater and film director, and a classical guitarist. “All these different aspects influenced his jewelry design, making his work very different from the traditional, accepted approach,” Suciyan said.
Suciyan spent seven years as an apprentice. First, to a master in the Grand Bazaar—which is still home to many of Istanbul’s Armenian jewelry makers and craftsmen. Under the tutelage of this traditional master, Suciyan learned the basics and had the chance to see whether the craft would suit him. It did, and he spent a further three years under the watchful eye of Misak Toros in his Nişantaşı workshop.
It was working in the workshop, with plenty of encouragement from Toros, that he was able to fully realize his potential in jewelry craftsmanship. While there, he also discovered that he had a talent for modeling jewelry from wax. As Suciyan explained: “The lost wax method is an ancient production technique used by craftsmen; one that we still use in the jewelry trade today. I enjoyed working with the plasticity of wax, as opposed to the rigidity of metal. It was the perfect medium for me to express my love of form and explore its possibilities.”
Whenever possible, Suciyan sources his materials locally and responsibly. He prefers certains types of stones and metals. “The wide color spectrum offered by sapphires appeals to me, as do cabochon and unusual amorphous stones, since I can incorporate them into my sculptural style,” he said. “As for metals, I mainly work with silver, mixing it with bronze, as this gives me the opportunity to play with their colors. I mainly use gold to accentuate different design details.”
Jewelry in a changing world
Some aspects of jewelry making are unchanged over hundreds of years but other methods are rapidly evolving. Suciyan is sure that technologies, such as 3D printing or modeling, are allowing more people to express their unique ideas and create jewelry much faster than in the old days, when everything was made by hand. “Bespoke, personalized designs could be another trend too, as nowadays people are searching for something that expresses their own unique identity,” he said. “Maybe the conventional use of precious materials won’t always be necessary and new, unconventional materials are appearing. These could merge with the digital gadgetry that surrounds us,” Suciyan explained.
There is one thing of which we can be certain. His impeccable workmanship will ensure that, like Ottoman treasures, Suciyan’s jewelry will become part of the city’s cultural and creative heritage.
Arman Suciyan on discovering the lost wax method
“We use a special wax, developed specifically for jewelry making. We used this material to model and carve designs, say for a brooch or a ring. It can be carved, melted, formed by heat, or filed. If the design you’re working on has a more sculptural feel, or has a form that would be difficult, or inefficient to shape directly from the precious metal, you can use this method to achieve the desired shape.
Once the model is prepared, the item can be cast using this technique. It is one that has been around since Sumerian times and the technique has scarcely changed. The wax model is encased in plaster of paris, then fired in an oven to melt the wax inside. This leaves a negative cavity in the plaster into which the molten metal is poured. Once the plaster cools it is broken, revealing an exact metal replica of the model. The craftsman now completes the post-casting process and the result is a beautiful sculpture or piece of jewelry.”
Where to buy fine jewelry in Istanbul
While some don’t need a particular reason to buy their loved ones a reflection of their feelings, others tend to display their affection as rarely as once or twice a year. Whichever group you belong to, you might want to save this list of our favorite jewelers in Istanbul for whenever the right time comes:
Made in Istanbul
- Arman Suciyan –Award-winning jewelry maker Suciyan works mostly with silver, combined with gold and copper.www.suciyan.com
- Manuk’s Workshop – From a Grand Bazaar apprentice to a master jeweler, Manuk Durmazgüler makes his minimalistic designs stand out thanks to his contemporary approach. Kemeraltı Caddesi No.25D, Karaköy; shop.manuksworkshop.com
- Aida Bergsen –Bergsen is known for her elegant, refined design inspired by mythological heroes and organic forms. Abdi İpekçi Caddesi, Bostan Sokak Ayda Apartmanı No.11 D.2, Teşvikiye; www.aidabergsen.com
- Kısmet by Milka –Minimalist and understated designs by Milka Karaağaçli, that are worn by many international celebrities on the red carpet. Teşvikiye Caddesi No.3/2, Nişantaşı; I: @kismetbymilka
- Zeynep Erol –It was at the Grand Bazaar that Erol mastered the skills of soldering, polishing, and metal cutting, which led to her work appearing in jewelry shows, boutiques, and museums. Atiye Sokak No.8/3, Nişantaşı; I:@zeyneperoljewelry
Second life of precious stones
- Topkapı Özavar –This renowned shop offers a wide selection of colorful jewels. The snake brooch displayed in the shop window is a replica of a piece from Madeleine Albright’s collection. Kalpakçılar Caddesi No.10, Grand Bazaar; T: 0212 527 25 53
- Timuçin Jewelry –With one location in the Grand Bazaar and the other in Nişantaşı, the place is a treasure trove for rare diamond cuts, vintage designer jewelry, and collectible timepieces. Abdi İpekçi Caddesi No.17, Nişantaşı; I: @timucinjewelry
The world’s finest luxuries
- Harry Winston – A remarkable American brand known for high-end diamond jewelry, including engagement rings, necklaces, and timepieces. Emaar Square, Libadiye Caddesi No.81, Üsküdar; T: 0216 227 35 00; I: @harrywinston
- Chopard –The luxurious Swiss company produces exclusive jewelry and high precision watches. The St. Regis Istanbul, Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi No.35, Nişantaşı’; I: @chopard