When Melbourne-born Olivia Cummings landed in Istanbul, after living in Paris for six years, she knew she was in for adventure. What she didn’t know was that one Turkish man would teach her everything she needed to know to start her own business – with barely a word spoken.
This is her story.
“As my plane landed in Istanbul, I could see a golden glow over the old town, where Sultans of the Ottoman Empire had been 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. You can find anything in Istanbul: freshly roasted nuts, pomegranate juice, hand-knitted socks, and many, many cats who the locals feed and take care of
A big part of Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar – the construction started in 1455 shortly after the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople. The Grand Bazaar is an overwhelming experience. Bright carpets, sellers trying to get you into their shops, too much Turkish tea and coffee and a maze of small streets to navigate.
I found my feet quickly in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul as I roamed the small alleyways, sipped on Turkish tea and asked endless questions of the men who had been working there for years, generation after generation. Coming from Melbourne, this fascinated me because we’re conditioned to chase our dreams and almost breakaway from our families in order to get our careers up and running. In the Grand Bazaar, the culture is so different and focuses on the family and community bond as the model of career survival.
In the Summer of 2014 I stumbled upon a very run-down shop with dimmed lights in one of the alleys of the bazaar. The aesthetic of the jewellery produced in this little shop was unlike all the other designs I had seen in Istanbul. Part of the window was covered up with colourful blankets in order to hide half of the shop- despite selling jewellery the man behind this stall didn’t seem to be there to make money. I was overtaken by curiosity and went in. With a Tibetan scarf wrapped around his head, tattoos on every arm, finger, his face and neck, this was Faruk. In broken Turkish, I asked him if he would teach me his intricate designs and he replied, ‘‘Yes, come back tomorrow at 9’’. I can’t pretend that the idea of learning jewellery making from scratch from a complete stranger didn’t make me feel slightly uneasy and 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 homemade meal, something very un-Turkish which made all of Faruk’s neighbours ask what it was and who I was. Faruk and I ended up eating and sipping tea while he puffed on cigarettes and I made my first eagle from pink wax.
Over the next three months, I worked 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, we worked at designs – making wax moulds with fire and knives in a tiny shop in Istanbul – while I awkwardly put together broken sentences in Turkish. The Old-World techniques I was using excited me; the shape of the piece of jewellery is carved and moulded out of wax, perfected with fire and small tools for shaping before being sent off to be cast in gold, silver or bronze. I was given a key to the Grand Bazaar rooftop, something generally reserved to the local men, and the rooftop became my workshop, looking over a city of mosques.
Faruk taught me patience in what I do. He taught me that imperfect lines in designs give character. 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.
Faruk also taught me that the more you’ve lived in your life, the more this will talk in what you create. Faruk had lived great sadness in his life because of his family. I don’t know details, and I never asked, but I can see that his experiences are what gave him a sense of resilience and a desire to create.
I thanked Faruk by making meals, gifting him with small artefacts I would find in antique shops and speaking French, German or English to potential customers as they admired his workmanship.
Being back in Australia over summer confirmed my love for Turkey. The wild, unpredictable and warm culture in Turkey has pulled me in and allowed me space for creativity.”