by Katherine Ainsworth
As a consummate traveler and lover of all variety of adornment, I make a point of delving into the jewelry scene anywhere I go—from the streets of New York City to China and many places in between. But on my recent visit to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, I hit the jackpot.
The Grand Bazaar, Kapali Carsi (“covered market” in Turkish), offers something for everyone. The selection ranges from diamonds and precious gems to fun, junky pieces made of tin. Turkey—and Istanbul specifically—have a long tradition of jewelry crafting. The craftsmanship offered in the Bazaar or at one of the many boutiques near it is rarely found elsewhere. A piece of jewelry can be handmade in less than a day, or even while you wait, depending upon how complicated the design and what materials are involved.
My particular interest is in “exotic” jewelry—tribal jewelry and handmade pieces created in the tradition of the people who made them. I went to Istanbul expecting to buy pieces made in the Turkish countryside, but in fact, there was very little of that to be found. What I discovered was magnificently authentic jewelry from Afghanistan and its central Asian neighbors.
The Grand Bazaar is the world’s oldest shopping mall, having been established in 1453. It began as a trading center for rural Turks to sell their handmade wares—including rugs, blankets, jewelry, and ceramics—to the relatively wealthier residents of Istanbul as well as to visitors from Europe and around the world. Istanbul had become the center of the vast Ottoman Empire and the western outpost for the Silk Road. The Grand Bazaar, though much smaller than it is today, was built as a central destination for goods coming from the Far East and the rest of Turkey. What started out as a small building is today a complex of connected buildings selling goods from places throughout the East.
For my first trip to the Grand Bazaar, I decided to go it alone. I entered through the Nuruosmaniye Gate, one of the main entrances, and was swept into the world of Turkish jewelry at its most traditional: contemporary pieces of gold or platinum with sparkling precious gems. Shops were glass-fronted, allowing a view of perfectly manipulated platinum rings with rubies or sapphires or any number of other stones. With the emphasis on artisanship, this is the place to order an Elizabeth Taylor-worthy stunner dripping with diamonds and gold. Although enticing to the eyes, I, lamentably, didn’t have a Richard Burton to make such a purchase for me.
Off the “main street” of the Bazaar were corridors full of shops and stands virtually flowing over with t-shirts that read “Turkey does it best,” lanterns made of Iznik (Turkish) tile, Uzbek tapestries, as well as cafés, a post office, and a police station. After taking several right turns, I found myself in a large area brimming with jewelry and small collectables. As I wandered through the six or so aisles of wares on display I glimpsed sterling silver charms, turquoise nuggets, necklace clasps. The variety was astounding, but I still didn’t see what I came to Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar to find. By the last aisle my eyes were a blur of gold teapots with intricately chiseled detail and wire necklaces with evil eye charms. With a quick step I escaped though a narrow doorway into one of the streets outside.
For my second excursion into the Bazaar I was accompanied by one of the owners of the guesthouse where I was staying. Mike, as he is nicknamed, is known among many merchants of in the Bazaar, especially those dealing in Central Asian goods. Mike claims to have visited the Grand Bazaar every day (except Sundays, when it’s closed) for the past twenty years. I took him up on his offer to help me find exactly the type of jewelry that I was searching for. Mike deftly led me to a nether-region of the Bazaar, one that because of the sheer density of shops and goods, I would not likely have found myself.
As we entered “Little Afghanistan Street,” as the corridor is referred to by merchants and frequent visitors to the Grand Bazaar, my heart began beating quickly. Surrounding us were bins of beads and coins, the traditional wartime headgear of rural Afghan warriors, hand-woven mats and throws and jewelry with fine enamelwork and colored glass inlay. In one shop, I picked my way through the heavy silver necklaces hung on every patch of available wall space. Earrings of rose-colored glass dangled gently from thin rods just above the top of a glass case filled with coin-laden necklaces and belts.
The shopkeeper, a young Asian man, and I negotiated prices over broken English and through the use of a calculator. After wrapping up the thirty-odd necklaces, pairs of earrings, bracelets, rings, and belt that I purchased, the shopkeeper presented me with a small gift: a semiprecious aquamarine-colored stone dangling from four strands of tiny lapis lazuli beads.
After paying for my purchases, Mike and I make our way back to the main drag. As we turn a corner, I catch a glimpse of silk caftans, but I keep walking.
Kybele Hotel (Mike’s guesthouse)
• Plan on bargaining when shopping the Grand Bazaar and other markets. It’s expected.
• Cash will get you a better deal, as will buying more than one item.
• If you’re shopping for jewelry in the Grand Bazaar, I came across two notables styles: delicate gold strands woven together as mesh in myriad forms and shapes and long necklaces— long enough to encircle the neck three times and still hit mid-chest—made of colorful silk ribbon with silver or gold charms of beads shaped as animals interspersed throughout each necklace.
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Katherine Ainsworth is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has lived in London and the South of France and has worked in fashion and publishing in the U.S., including Glamour, SELF, Us Weekly, and Advertising Age. She also owns a tribal jewelry business, gitane nyc (gitane nyc), for which she does a great deal of traveling.