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"Trial and error is a very time-consuming and crucial process in my case. I have had quite a few pieces taking well over a year to finish." - Turkish Jewellery designer Sevan Bicakci (above) on his limited-edition pieces such as his signature piece which features the Hagia Sophia - an Istanbul monument in miniature

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"Trial and error is a very time-consuming and crucial process in my case. I have had quite a few pieces taking well over a year to finish." - Turkish Jewellery designer Sevan Bicakci on his limited-edition pieces such as his signature piece (above) which features the Hagia Sophia - an Istanbul monument in miniature

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TURKISH DELIGHTS: Mr Bicakci's five-storey atelier also hosts artisans who work on calligraphy, painting, ceramics, sculpture and glass. And all of these disciplines could exist together on any one piece of fine jewellery such as a pair of earrings with the Hagia Sophia imprint (above).

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TURKISH DELIGHTS: A knuckle-duster with miniature pomegranates.

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TURKISH DELIGHTS: Ornate rings with avian motifs.

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TURKISH DELIGHTS: Ornate rings with avian motifs.

The empire strikes back

Reviving styles and techniques originating from the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, a Turkish designer celebrates his country's rich history through statement jewellery.
Aug 22, 2015 5:50 AM

FOR someone about to present his collection for the first time in Asia, Sevan Bicakci is oddly disinterested in pandering to a new demographic.

"My pieces are not meant to highlight the beauty of the person wearing it," says the design veteran, whose collection will be available at Edit Lifestyle at Tudor Court from Aug 28 to Sept 20, as part of the store's Turkish Delight pop-up bazaar.

"There are some in Asia who already appreciate my work, but like anywhere else in the world, including Turkey, its appeal is recognised by a niche group of people."

Indeed, his oversized, domed rings are not for the sartorially bashful. Often combining a catalogue of techniques resurrected from the past, each design is a detailed tableau encapsulated in an accessory. A rose quartz cabochon could house a miniature, three-dimensional representation of the Hagia Sophia - an Istanbul monument that began as a Christian basilica, became an imperial mosque and is currently a museum. This almost-hologramic effect is achieved by intaglio, a kind of reverse carving from the underside of the domed gemstone to project the design out to the viewer.

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As if finessing the technique isn't enough of a feat, Mr Bicakci would further challenge the artisans in his atelier to up the ante by framing this centrepiece with a mini-mural formed from pieces of mosaic, each the width of a strand of human hair. Upon close inspection of his masterpieces, few would lament his prices, which start from S$10,000.

"I am also very fortunate to belong to a culture of customised production," says Mr Bicakci. "We are comfortable and passionate about experimenting with the craft without expecting huge returns, which keeps us flexible and creative."

Referencing inspirations as varied as Sufi poetry and the Trojan War, Mr Bicakci's creative journey is as convoluted as the designs he produces. And it all began with a stint as a jewellery model maker when he was just 12, as part of an apprenticeship with a relative - respected Armenian master jeweller Hovsep Chatak.

"That's a wise option if you lack financial capital despite being a talented goldsmith," says Mr Bicakci, whose workshop is located just outside the Grand Bazaar, the 15th-century Istanbul market that has been listed as the most-visited tourist attraction in the world in 2014 by Travel + Leisure magazine.

"On the other hand, that job was simply converting other people's designs into moulds and making sample pieces for mass production. I was in no position to suggest anything personal to a market which had fallen too much under the influence of European brands - mass tourism was entering Turkey during this long period of hyperinflation."

Rather than developing a distinct design identity by mining the rich artistry and culture that punctuated their history, Turkish jewellers then almost entirely focused on creating pedestrian, tourist-friendly pieces.

"There came a point when I started looking around with different eyes with an all-new perspective," recalls Mr Bicakci. "I started fantasising about rings for imaginary queens and kings of Istanbul. Their rings would surely have to be one of a kind and multi-layered just like the city."

The silhouette of his signature ring is also inspired by the Hagia Sophia, a great Byzantine structure which inspired the Ottomans to build monumental mosques everywhere in the Old City for nearly five centuries. Combining 24K gold and silver, the texture of the ring is deliberately imperfect, irregularly scratched and oxidised to resemble actual ancient treasures that have been excavated at construction sites in the Old City. "There would often be rich references to traditional arts and crafts such as Byzantine mosaics, Ottoman ceramic ware, miniature paintings, and so on," explains Mr Bicakci. "I explored different craftmanship techniques and ways of carving. It is this curiosity, such experimentation - which was a self-taught process - that have contributed to the evolution of my style."

Today, apart from age-old jewellery-making activities such as diamond setting and gem polishing, Mr Bicakci's five-storey atelier also hosts artisans who work on calligraphy, painting, ceramics, sculpture and glass. And all of these disciplines could exist together on any one piece of fine jewellery.

"Trial and error is a very time-consuming and crucial process in my case," admits Mr Bicakci. "I have had quite a few pieces taking well over a year to finish. They usually end up in my personal jewellery box as it becomes ridiculous to price them."

A ring called Gate of Hope consists of 17 different elements, another piece called Skies Over Istanbul is covered with a puzzle of extremely small ceramic tesserae (ornate tiles used in creating a mosaic) and hence took nearly 18 months to complete.

Each creation starts with a story before materialising on paper in the form of a sketch. It is then refined and embellished until it becomes a set of intricate drawings for the production of an actual piece. Even then, mistakes will still arise due to the various delicate techniques employed. The intaglio technique of relief carving, for example, may result in fractures or cracks in the gem.

"There's always a high risk of failure during production and improvisation may become necessary," adds Mr Bicacki, who could be seen wearing multiple statement-making jewellery pieces at any given time.

While the passionate artist might be happy with producing such ornate sparklers for an inner sanctum of devotees, others seem keen on sharing his creations with the rest of the world. In 2005, Cindy Edelstein, an award-winning jewellery editor and organiser of a showcase of industry trendsetters, invited Mr Bicakci to be part of a major jewellery trade show as a rising star to watch.

"The participation in 2005 did not lead to direct business, but our exhibition booth was packed throughout the show," says Mr Bicakci.

"This provided me not only with huge motivation, it also made me visible to one New York-based showroom that I had been hoping to work with in the United States. Shaking hands with them soon after brought me to the position of presenting my work to the most prestigious US buyers."

Today, he boasts plush, standalone boutiques in Istanbul and Dubai, and also sells his works at Barneys New York and the Talisman Gallery in London.

"This is my first visit ever to Singapore and I have only been to Hong Kong before this," reveals Mr Bicakci. "This visit is surely a great opportunity to meet a few of my collectors from the area. Apart from that, my expectations are right now rather focused on sampling delicious Asian food."