culture - Sevan Biçakçi
Written by Ayesha Khan
From his atelier tucked away behind Istanbul’s iconic Grand Bazaar, this ingenious artisan creates pieces that inspire jewellery collectors and Hollywood celebrities alike. But the road to success wasn’t always paved with glittering gemstones.
Sevan Biçakçi’s story begins in humble surrounds in the Samarya neighbourhood of old Istanbul. School was not the place for the boisterous youth, who dropped out at the tender age of 12. Desperate to place his troubled son on the right path, Biçakçi’s father beseeched his neighbour, Hovsep Çatak, to take young Sevan on in his jewellery workshop. Every morning the unruly boy would arrive at the bustling, overcrowded workshop at 7am to ensure it was spotlessly clean, and that a cup of hot Turkish tea was waiting for his mentor. Days would be spent running back and forth through the atelier to make sure the master and his kalfas (who were superior in rank to him, the humble apprentice) had every tool and every piece of information they needed.
The day would wind down at 9pm, when he would walk home from work (he didn’t earn enough to take public transport). Seemingly brutal for a young boy, but Biçakçi recalls those days with great fondness. They were his formative years in a business that, on the cobbled streets of Istanbul’s jewellery district, is as cut-throat as any other. “I have no regrets,” he recalls. “However tough, I never felt I was missing out. He was a good teacher. I was a naughty, hyperactive, clumsy 12-year-old, and he never gave up on me. He showed me how to be a good person,” the now mild-mannered, gracious host explains as we sit in his light-filled Istanbul studio surrounded by his creations.
Once he had gleaned enough from Çatak, Biçakçi set out to absorb any and every skill he would need to succeed in his newfound form of artistic expression. “I’m like a silkworm that eats leaves and processes them into silk. I’ve been bombarded with so much information and so many images since I was a child, and jewellery making is the technique I personally learned to express myself. All of this bombardment comes out as jewellery,” he says of his creative process.
His technique is all about intaglio carving in reverse into the hollow of a precious gem. This gem is then mounted onto an oversized cocktail ring that is further adorned with anything from carving to miniature painting or even miniature tesserae mosaics. Biçakçi’s atelier is therefore filled with work from skilful artists and artisans from various disciplines, from sculptors to calligraphy artists, many of whom work from their respective corners of the city on the same piece. The lustre of pure gold is often passed up for a more antiqued alloy of yellow or rose gold and silver.
The results are awe-inspiring, and no two pieces are ever alike. In one ring, a panorama of Istanbul’s historic peninsula is depicted in such vivid, microscopic detail that there are even seagulls flying overhead. In another, black diamonds and rubies are embedded into hollowed-out quartz in the shape of a ladybird. The Blue Mosaic ring, which took more than 18 months to create, features thousands of tesserae, many of which are only slightly thicker than a human hair.
The success he enjoys today didn’t come easily to Biçakçi. At the age of 18, he ventured out on his own, creating models for jewellers around the city who would pay him a paltry sum and make thousands of casts of his models. When he first tried to create his own intaglio jewels, they were viewed as too radical by Istanbul’s jewel trade. Jewellers thought Biçakçi was crazy to deliberately decrease the carat value of a gem by carving into it.
“The problem is that we end up cracking a lot of stones, so we have to start over again,” explains Biçakçi’s creative director and cousin, Arman. “There are a huge number of gemstones that we need to sacrifice for just one good outcome.”
To make matters all the more challenging, Biçakçi’s father suffered a stroke, and, unable to work, relied on Sevan to support the family. But, with the unwavering support of his fiancée (now his wife) and an uncle who lent him a bar of gold, he was able to follow his dreams and pursue his passion for statement jewellery. Istanbul’s fashion-forward set soon started to take note, and word of his unique creations spread fast. “It’s a small society of connoisseurs around the world, quite often they know each other, and they are mostly collectors,” Biçakçi says of his customers, who include fashion mogul Tory Burch and model/actress Brooke Shields.
Today, as he sits at the helm of Istanbul’s most iconic jewellery house, artists and artisans come to Biçakçi’s door hoping he will take them under his wing. Those naysayers who once dismissed him as crazy are now clambering to imitate his unmistakable jewels. As the sun sets over the Bosphorus, a chorus of seagulls, the call to prayer, and boat horns signal the end of the work day. Biçakçi’s loyal students head home, honoured that their mentor is lovingly imparting his wisdom, just as his own mentors did in the past. And although they have their smartphones and – unlike their predecessor – can afford to take Istanbul’s now high-tech public transport system, an age-old art form does, and will always, live on for generations to come.
While many Qatar Airways travellers will be fortunate enough to visit Biçakçi’s Istanbul atelier, those who won’t may still browse through Assouline’s brilliantly illustrated volume dedicated to his vast body of work, from the early days of Sultan head rings to present-day masterpieces like the elaborate Kraken bracelet/ring. Eloquently penned by British jewellery historian Vivienne Becker, this book also tells the unique story of his life and art. US$165 assouline.com