In the Grand Bazaar
by Olivia Cummings
I was drawn to Turkey for its vibrancy and colour, seduced by the mix of East and West that I had missed out on in my upbringing in Melbourne, and adult life in Paris. The warm Turkish culture swept me off my feet, and opened many doors that put me on the path of jewelry making, which has now become my point of expression in connecting with the world.
As my plane landed in Istanbul, I could see a golden glow over the old town, where sultans of the Ottoman Empire had walked many centuries before. The tall mosques and the Bosporus glittered and, despite my nervousness, I knew that this city had something in store for me. My first few months in Istanbul were dedicated to exploring the winding pathways, meeting locals, and taking in the very active street life.
Leaving Paris for Istanbul was daunting. I was saying goodbye to a language and culture that had become my comfort zone, and was venturing out into the world as an individual, not tied to any pre-formed structures such as a job, a degree or a family unit. That said, I found my feet quickly in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul as I roamed the small alleyways, sipped on Turkish tea, and asked question after question to the men whose families had been working there for generations. Having grown up in Melbourne, this fascinated me because of the way we have been conditioned in the Western world to chase our dreams, to break away from our families, in order to get our careers up and running. In the Grand Bazaar, the focus and model of survival is on the family and community bond.
The Grand Bazaar is the heart of Istanbul. The construction of the Grand Bazaar started in 1455 shortly after the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople. Not only is it an important piece of Istanbul’s history, but it’s also culturally rich point of trade. It was my stepping stone into the world of jewellery.
The Grand Bazaar is an overwhelming experience: bright carpets, high and intricate ceilings, too much Turkish tea and coffee, and a maze of small streets to navigate. You can find anything there: freshly roasted nuts, pomegranate juice, hand-knit socks, and many, many stray cats fed and cared for by the locals. Once you’re in, if you don’t know your way around, you may end up spending most of your day there, without knowing where the time has gone.
In the Summer of 2014 I stumbled upon a very run-down shop with dimmed lights in one of the alleys of the bazaar, and was instantly lured into the shop for reasons that I cannot accurately describe. The unconventional facade of this shop made me realise that the vendor wasn’t there to sell and make money, but was there for art, for creation, for connection. Part of the window was covered up with colourful blankets in order to hide half of the shop. This didn’t stop me. I was overtaken by curiosity and went in.
The man I met inside was certainly out of the ordinary. With a Tibetan scarf wrapped around his head, tattoos on arms, fingers, face and neck, he worked away at intricate designs that reminded me of another world. The aesthetic of his jewellery was unlike other designs I had seen in Istanbul. His designs were raw, unrefined, and naïve- they spoke to my spirit. His name was Faruk. In broken Turkish, I asked him if he would teach me, to which Faruk replied, “Yes, come back tomorrow at 9:00.” I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, or if it was going to turn into what I had hoped for, but the mystery of the journey was good enough for me.
The next morning, I took in a meal that I had prepared the night before, something very un-Turkish which caused Faruk’s neighbours to question what it was and, more importantly, who I was! We ate, sipped strong tea, and I made my first eagle from pink wax while he puffed on a packet of cigarettes. I realised on this day that the naïvety of the handmade life, which has been nearly stamped out in Western culture, was the path that I had been looking for. I felt a longing in me to know things with my hands, as an extension of my creativity. This day was pivotal in my jewellery learning as I really felt at home. It calmed my mind, a rarity for me, and I felt that I had a lot to give.
I can’t pretend that the idea of going in to learn jewellery from scratch didn’t make me feel slightly uneasy. I had gone from a job in Paris that I could do with my eyes closed, to making wax moulds with fire and knives in a tiny shop in Istanbul. It did make me wonder if I was experiencing a quarter life crisis, or if this was just raw and honest living and exploring.
Over the next three months, I was in Faruk’s atelier most days of the week. Over strong tea and with a mixture of traditional Turkish music and the Rolling Stones on the radio, I awkwardly put together broken sentences in Turkish and we worked at designs. My first creation formed before my eyes. Our workshop on the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar, overlooking the sea and the old mosques, became my little getaway. I was given a key to the rooftop, generally reserved to the local men, and I myself became a local artisan. In these three months I rediscovered my childhood.
Faruk taught me patience in what I do. He taught me that imperfect lines in designs give character. He also taught me that the more you’ve lived in your life, the more this will speak in what you create and how you express yourself. Faruk has had great sadness in his life and family. I don’t know details, and I never asked, but I can see that his experiences gave him resilience and a desire to create. I thanked Faruk by making workshop meals, gifting him with small artefacts I would find in antique shops, and speaking French, German and English to potential customers as they admired his workmanship.
I carved away at wax for the next six months, my Turkish improved, and life just seemed to fall into place. My interest in Byzantine and Roman history and design grew, and I was enchanted by the other world that had existed in Istanbul well before my life had even begun.
The Old-World techniques I was using excited me, and I felt immense empowerment designing these pieces that are now part of my first complete collection. The shape of the piece of jewellery is moulded/carved out of wax, perfected with fire and small tools for shaping, and then sent off to be cast in gold, silver or bronze.
My strong bond with metals, tools, crystals, and precious stones was being born. I was dreaming about designs and caves of crystals, and reading up on ancient mythology. I realised this was just the beginning of a life-long love affair with design. My enchantment with jewellery doesn’t stop there- it includes the dear friends I have made in the process, who have taken me under their wings so generously, teaching me the ropes and being proud of my growth. I only hope that the energy I put into my collections is translated into the finished product and is received by my ever-loyal customers.
Making an object to adorn another person is a humbling and warming experience. There are no shortcuts in my work. I can’t make industrial quantities, and the organic shapes and forms of my jewellery can never be perfect. I call it the “imperfect perfect.” As big brands take over the global market, many people are looking for raw, naïve products that they feel a connection with, that remind them of the beautiful imperfection of life.
Being back in Australia over the summer confirms my love for Turkey. The wild, unpredictable and warm culture in Turkey has pulled me in and allowed me space for creativity. I look forward to producing future collections and working closely with one of the original hearts of civilization that has given so generously to me over the past two years, and to which I wish to pay respect in this story.
Olivia was born a wanderer, and spent her childhood immersed in the wilds of her native Australia. She became enchanted with languages while studying at Melbourne University, and moved to Paris, vacationing throughout Europe, India, and Turkey. While exploring the markets of the Grand Bazaar, Cleopatra’s Bling was born: a fusion of eastern allure and western style. Driven to introduce Cleopatra’s Bling to the world, Olivia moved to Turkey. Today you’ll find her in Istanbul with a scarf in her hair and a ring on every finger, creating handmade jewelry that carries ancient stories, the promise of adventure, and the enchanting beauty of Mother Nature in every piece.