Istanbul's silversmiths hold on to vanishing trade: 'I do this because I love it'
ISTANBUL, Turkey - Just steps away from Istanbul's famous Grand Bazaar, the pleasant rattle of nimble hammers on metal echoes through the halls of an 18th-century han (caravanserai).
The sounds spring from the tools of what may be Istanbul's last generation of silversmiths. They are among a handful of practitioners in a disappearing trade who handcraft impeccably detailed combs, mirrors, candlesticks, pitchers and other exquisite creations.
Just a few of these masters remain at their unofficial headquarters in the crumbling yet serene Buyuk Yeni Han, a former caravanserai that is now filled with workshops. The craft has been devastated by a lack of interest from younger generations in apprenticing for the trade and an influx of low-quality imports.
“The biggest thing that has hurt us is the arrival of cheap goods from outside of the country,” said Eyyup Sulu. Beginning his apprenticeship at the age of seven, the 38-year-old has pored over silver handiworks for the majority of his life.
Sulu claimed that his cousin Feyzullah Yagmur, with whom he works side by side, is the youngest usta (master) left in the trade. Yagmur is just a few years younger than Sulu. As silversmithing is no longer nearly as lucrative or respected as it once was, there is no new wave of apprentices waiting to replace Sulu and Yagmur once their hands have had enough.
Sulu and Yagmur have four children each, though Sulu said they are not interested in following in their father's footsteps, nor is he willing to get them to try. He hopes that they can have a better future. Their workshop used to consist of a larger cadre, but the numbers dwindled over the years and now just the cousins are left.
“There used to be more than 10 of us. Now we are two,” Sulu lamented, not skipping a beat as he chipped away at one of his signature hand-held mirrors, which looks like something out of a fairy tale.
“No one else in the world makes this mirror,” he insisted.
The elder cousin takes care of the handiwork before passing the mirrors off to Yagmur, who welds together the handle and the body. They possess a synchronicity and liquid precision of which only a true usta can boast.
The cousins said their business peaked in the 1990s and the decline began around the mid 2000s due to the influx of cheap imports. Yagmur mentioned the existence of a nearby han informally known as the “Chinese Bazaar” because of its vast selection of Chinese trinkets.
“We used to sell 1000 [mirrors] a week, but now we sell maybe 200,” Yagmur said.
Sulu said the three-storey Buyuk Yeni Han - with its rows of riveting arches that frame an expansive courtyard - used to be packed with silversmiths. Today the lower floors are mostly textile shops, and a handful of silversmiths occupy the top floor.
Two smaller hans located immediately adjacent to the Grand Bazaar are home to a number of workshops and their accompanying showrooms, where the shelves are gleaming with bowls, trays and teapots. But there are no customers in sight and one salesman complained that even the wealthy do not buy silver goods to give as gifts any more. It seems that the precious metal itself has gone out of style.
“Our work is more valuable, but no one values handmade products any more,” said Sulu, adding that the situation was getting worse by the day.
Among their major buyers are merchants in the nearby Grand Bazaar, but that institution itself has taken a hit as the number of tourists coming to Istanbul has plummeted following a series of bomb attacks in 2016. Hundreds of shops in the colossal covered market closed their doors last year.
Walking through the corridors of the Buyuk Yeni Han and peering into the dusty, cluttered workshops, one feels that they have stumbled upon the last hurrah of a defeated tribe. Teenagers shuffle trays of tea and hot meals covered in saran wrap to sustain the stalwart craftsmen, who hammer away with care in defiance of the mass-produced goods that have seriously threatened their livelihoods.
Some of the silversmiths are cagey and do not wish to speak or have their photographs taken. It is clear the decline of their craft has taken its toll, and any additional outside interference is not welcome.
Sulu, in spite of it all, retains an easygoing, friendly vibe alongside an admirable sense of resilience. He said that a number of his colleagues decided to pursue other careers when they realised theirs lacked a future. One man who started around the same time as Sulu transitioned into jewellery and now has a shop and a steady income.
But the silversmith is not bitter or regretful, and his passion for the trade has not been corroded.
“I continue doing this work because I love it. I have lots of friends who left to do other things,” Sulu said.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.