Armenian jewelers, who have been referred to as “the best in the field of jewelry making in Turkey” since the early years of the Ottoman Empire, are nowadays busy teaching key points of their profession to Turkish apprentices -- something they refrained from doing for many years.
In Turkey, precious stones have traditionally turned into jewels in the hands of Armenian jewelers. Indeed, it is Armenian masters who made jewelry a profession and eventually a sector in the country. The best jewelers have been Armenians since İstanbul’s historic Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) -- a traditional hub for gold merchants -- was first opened in the middle of the 15th century, and they continue to be so. Armenian jewelers were rewarded and praised by Ottoman sultans for their talent in the field. But they refrained from teaching key points of jewelry making to others -- especially to others from other nations. They picked their apprentices from among Armenian youth, and even then, they were stingy with their teaching. They did not teach the profession fully. They kept key points to themselves, thinking the new generation of jewelers might become their rivals and seek to dethrone them in the future.
However, the trend started to change 15 or 20 years ago. After big companies embarked on jewelry making, imitation products became popular because they both look like the originals and are much cheaper. In parallel, jewelers producing unique pieces of jewelry in their small ateliers stopped earning huge sums of money. Most masters either started working for those big jewelry companies or left Turkey to continue their profession abroad. And Armenians have become reluctant to make their children apprentices in once big but now quite small jewelry ateliers.
So Armenians masters have begun -- albeit reluctantly – to abandon their principle of not teaching the profession to apprentices other than Armenians and to employ young Turks as their new apprentices. Currently there are around 200 Armenian jewelers working in ateliers in and around Kapalıçarşı. Many speculate that they will disappear in 20 or 30 years. Sunday’s Zaman visited some Armenian jewelry masters in their ateliers to learn their opinion about changing trends in jewelry making in the country.
Arsen Agonaoğlu, who has been working as a jewelry master for 40 years, told Sunday’s Zaman that the “spirit of jewel making” was dealt a heavy blow after big jewelry companies entered the sector. He said the companies not only stole traditional jewelers’ business but also damaged the spirit of jewelry making because they do not pay attention to the principle of uniqueness of each piece of jewelry when they produce in large numbers. According to Agonaoğlu, the companies also pose a threat to the traditional relationship between jewelry masters and apprentices. “A master is everything to an apprentice. He holds his hand, and makes him learn a profession. He approaches him with love like a father. And the apprentice respects him. When I was an apprentice, I would not talk to others out of respect when I was with my master,” he said.
Agonaoğlu said he graduated from middle school in 1972 and did not want to go to high school. “I told my father that I wanted to work. And he gave me some alternatives. He was a shoemaker. He said I could become a shoemaker, a car mechanic or a jeweler -- all popular professions back then. I decided to become a jeweler, and my father took me to the Kapalıçarşı and gave me as an apprentice to a jewelry master,” he said. Agonaoğlu began to learn key points of becoming a jeweler by observing his master as he worked.
After he learned how to make jewelry from his master, Agonaoğlu started to work at a jewelry atelier in İstanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood. Then he became a jewelry master and began teaching the profession to apprentices. “We, jewelry masters, have to teach the profession to young people in the best way possible. We should not discriminate between Armenian and non-Armenian apprentices. We no longer have Armenian apprentices. And professions do not belong to any nation. We cannot say jewel makers should only be Armenians or Turks,” he stated.
‘Kapalıçarşı was like a school for us’
Masis Saraçoğlu, who was born to a rich Armenian family in southeastern Diyarbakır province, moved to İstanbul with his family when he was a young man after the Sept. 12, 1980, coup d’état. After staying in İstanbul for only three months, the Saraçoğlu family left for the Netherlands. But the family was not happy in the Netherlands, either, and they returned to İstanbul.
Saraçoğlu said he dreamt of becoming a jeweler since he was a young boy. Then he started working as an apprentice at a jewelry atelier in the Kapalıçarşı. “My master was a man called Agop. He was also an Armenian. My father told my master to make me work hard. ‘Starting today, this is your son. Make him learn the job so that he can stand on his feet in the future,’ my father told my master,” Saraçoğlu said, recounting the old days.
According to Saraçoğlu, ateliers in the Kapalıçarşı were like a school for apprentices back then. “My master made me watch him work for two years. He asked me to watch and learn every moment of jewelry making,” he said. He opened his own jewelry shop several years later and became a well-known jewelry maker in İstanbul. But his work began to deteriorate after big companies entered the jewelry business, and he closed down his shop and started working for one of those companies. “I love my job, but I do not want my children to become jewelry masters because I know they will not earn good money in this profession,” he added. Jirayr Başaran, also an Armenian jewelry master, said he began working at a jewelry atelier as an apprentice when he was only 7 years old. “My father was a tailor. He wanted me to become a tailor like him. But I wanted to become a jeweler,” he said. According to Başaran, jewelers earned a lot of money when he was an apprentice. “Ateliers used to work like beehives. We used to work until 1:00 a.m. to prepare people’s orders,” he added.