“Never, in all its history, had the city of Belgrade been witness to such magnificence. […] The crowd’s eyes are inexorably drawn to the matchless crown, borne on a velvet cushion behind the sultan, the crown that he, who would soon be known as ‘the Magnificent’ by all Europe, would not wear, but simply display as a sign of power,” writes Gül İrepoğlu, renowned art historian, architect and novelist, who recently published a rare and detailed analysis of imperial Ottoman jewellery, a 198-page book.
As a child, I remember visiting the rich treasury of the Topkapi Palace Museum and being mesmerized by the sheer size of the drop-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Little did I know that this 86-carat diamond had become part of the Treasury in the 17th century and was used by Sultan Abdülhamid I as the centerpiece of an aigrette placed at the top of his turban. When I went to visit İrepoğlu at her beautiful study filled with Ottoman and modern art and artefacts, she explained how the austere Ottoman architecture contrasted with the glamour of smaller objects. The Ottomans valued functionality in their daily lives, but as the empire progressed, the Padişah (the reigning Sultan) had to be set apart from his subjects by virtue of his bejewelled presence.
One indispensable jewellery item is the aforementioned aigrette, comprising of an either gold or silver socket encrusted with rubies, diamonds or emeralds and accompanied by varying colours of plumes. Crane, heron, bird of paradise, ostrich and peacock feathers adorned the jewelled aigrettes, which could take the shape of a rose, a ball, or five balls, which looked like an open hand. They could be worn over the turban singly or in threes, but never more than three at the same time. While they were quite plain in the 16th century at the peak of Ottoman power in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as the empire began to retreat, the aigrette designs grew more ostentatious, the gemstones becoming unbelievably large as if to make up for the loss of political and financial power. Though Sultans, along with the rest of the world, adopted Western clothing, they chose the fez for headgear, and maintained the tradition of the aigrette over this originally Moroccan hat.
Flasks are another traditional item from which some iconic jewellery designs were created by Ottoman craftsman. Picture the ancient nomadic Turkic tribes in the plains of Central Asia, on horseback during their whole lives, and drinking water from their leather flasks. Now put gold and a million jewels on it and take it to the Sultan’s court! The Sultan had a flask-bearer who, during ceremonies, carried his water in this magnificent golden flask of distinctive workmanship. Encrusted with rubies and emeralds set in delicate flowers of golden bezels, it is a masterpiece that truly sets the bar for Turkish jewellery design.
And of course, apart from daggers, mirrors, candlesticks, combs, watches, maces, shields, quivers, parasols and equestrian equipment, there was wearable jewellery. The focus here inevitably shifts to women, whose sparkling tiaras, aigrettes, necklaces and earrings can justly blow your hat off. Imperial weddings were the peak of jewellery exchange, where both the bridegroom and the father of the bride contributed to the impressive trousseau. One distinguishing feature of fashion at the imperial court was that ladies put on many pieces of jewellery, often in differing styles. But the elegance of one particular type of jewellery was unparallelled: the en tremblant brooch. İrepoğlu explains, “A concealed coil or hinge allows the jewel to tremble as the wearer moves: birds with pearl or emerald eyes shimmer, slender flowers and fine diamond-veined leaves quiver almost imperceptibly, wide leaves that adorn the shoulders of the decolleté and of course, the head.”
If you would like to read more, you can find the English edition of ‘Imperial Ottoman Jewellery: Reading History Through Jewellery’ by Gül İrepoğlu in any major bookstore in the city, or order it online at http://www.bkg.com.tr/. If you would like to see more, visit Topkapi Palace Museum, open every day from 9.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m. http://www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr/