November 13, 2011

Ottomans and Their Jewelry

Most people by now know that Sotheby’s in Geneva will be auctioning off the Pruth diamonds – a necklace, earrings and broche set that is believed to have been part of a bribe offered by Russia’s Empress Catherine to Sultan Ahmed III to ensure that the Pruth River Peace Treaty was signed between their countries in 1711.


Whether it was 75,000 or 100,000 years ago that man first donned an ornament hardly matters. But following the history of jewelry through the ages is exploring man’s growing sophisticated use of tools and metals, disposable income and differing aesthetic ideas. From the earliest chains of animal teeth that might have had magical significance through to today’s charm bracelets, mankind doesn’t seem to have come too far.

The Ottomans were no different. Jewelry was a portable bank account, an investment against the future, perhaps a dowry. It was the Ottoman court that led the way in jewelry design. There was a permanent staff, under one man, that was responsible for the designs and production of jewelry. In the 16th century there were 80 men employed and they worked within the palace complex in the First Courtyard. They were of Greek or Jewish origin although the Ottoman conquests of places like Tabriz and Cairo in the first part of the 16th century ensured that the most capable jewelers, and other artists for that matter, came to live and work in Istanbul at the court.

The materials with which the artisans worked usually consisted of gold or silver and brightly colored precious or semi-precious stones set in one of these metals. The Pruth set is instantly recognizable as not being of Ottoman workmanship. Registers exist going back to the 15th century that show what was brought to the palace in the way of materials as well as what came as “gifts” or were purchased, inventories of everything in stock, the artist and when an item left the palace and where it went. There are even registers showing the contents of estates that returned to the sultan’s possession following the death of some state officials or possibly a member of the dynasty.

As one would expect, the Ottomans used their jewelry not just for personal adornment but to also express power and virility. Moreover they used jewels in ways that we would hardly consider today such as on thrones, the covers of books, swords, quivers, goblets and lamps. Evens trays were made out of gold and silver and often presented as gifts to foreign rulers. Gold and silver wire was used to embroider clothing and covers for tables, furniture and curtains among other items including carpets.

Miniature paintings don’t do justice to the ways in which jewelry was used by the Ottomans for personal adornment although aigrettes, necklaces and earrings are depicted. A clearer picture can be obtained in paintings by western artists who visited Istanbul over the centuries, assuming that these men actually saw examples of Ottoman jewelry even though they were unable to visit harems themselves.

Gold and silver were the most popular metals, and their consumption was helped on by conquests in the Balkans in the 15th century and later in East Anatolia where mines were located. Although today jewelers only consider diamonds, emeralds, rubies and blue sapphires to be truly precious stones, the Ottomans considered a much wider variety of stones to be precious, including turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, jade and rock crystal. Color was more important for the Ottomans than it is in modern times and that maybe why they liked colored diamonds or used them to set off a larger, brighter stone like an emerald or ruby. Pearls were especially great favorites.

Today many of the precious jeweled items that the Ottomans valued still exist at Topkapi Palace Museum and some are on display. For the curious, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Culture, Inc. division has just published a book, Istanbul’s 100 Jewels and Artisans. And on Nov. 15, quite a few people will be focused on the diamond set that got away.

Read more on Hurriyet Daily News: Ottomans and Their Jewelry

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