I catch sight of jewellery designer Olivia Cummings as I approach on a tram. Born and raised in Melbourne, she looks serene standing on a corner amidst the bustle of Istanbul. She greets me warmly and leads me through the maze of the Grand Bazaar, popping her head in various shops to greet people. “I get in trouble if I don’t say hello, but if I say hello, I have to stop and have chai (Turkish black tea, drunk socially, constantly, throughout the day).”
Her jewellery label Cleopatra’s Bling was born two years ago when Cummings was on holiday in Turkey, while she was living in Paris. For two years she travelled back and forth, designing in Paris and visiting Istanbul to meet with her jewellers. “I was feeling a little bit frustrated – I couldn’t really develop. I had lots of ideas, but if I came two weeks at a time it wasn’t enough, and I felt cut off from the process.” In November of last year, Cummings decided to uproot and move to the source. “Being here, I have the freedom to make it as I go. It’s also more inspiring; the culture, the colours and the fact that I’m learning more techniques is leading to new paths.”
In a quiet aisle of the bazaar, Cummings works alongside her teacher, Faruq Ertan, in an atelier a little different from the rest. Others are brightly lit and welcoming. Here the desk is cluttered with tools. A sign on the wall asks visitors to not stay more than five minutes. “There are a lot of jewellers in the bazaar with the same style, but he had a style I had never seen before; he was after a look that I’m also interested in. He also uses stones I have never seen before, as opposed to that very shiny look a lot of Turkish girls are into, with big, fake-looking jewels. They don’t have that raw-stone look, which is what I like.” Cummings says.
Under Ertan’s guidance, Cummings is learning techniques and developing self-made collections as well as designing using a traditional method where, for example, the shape of the ring is moulded carefully out of wax, using fire to smooth the edges around the central piece. It is then sent off to be made up in gold, silver or bronze. “It comes out looking nothing like a ring at all – it needs to be polished and polished,” Cummings explains. The stone is then fitted into to the ring.
Cummings has collected crystals since she was a young girl, and her love of them was reignited in Turkey, which has a huge crystal industry. “I’ve seen stones here I’ve never seen anywhere else, really special, one-off pieces. That’s one of the problems with selling stones – they don’t all look the same!” The pieces in her latest collection are weighty, richly coloured crystals wrapped in gold and silver, meant to be worn as regal necklaces. The rings are heavy and jagged but remain delicate.
After visiting Ertan, Cummings takes me around the market to introduce me to some of her friends – a textiles merchant and a carpet seller. We sit and drink chai – upstairs, away from the touristy parts of the market. Cummings looks perfectly at home and says she does indeed spend much of her time here. “There is a design community in Istanbul but it is mostly in Galata [a district of Istanbul]. That’s why it is interesting being in the Grand Bazaar – I think people are intimidated to come here and work. It’s a man’s world, and I don’t think there is another Australian here.” Upon asking whether it was difficult to meet people and break into the community in the bazaar, Cummings shakes her head and smiles.
“No, they are very friendly but you definitely have to know what you’re doing. In Galata people open trendy studios where they paint and have more of a tortured-artist mentality. Here people say, ‘I’m going to make this’, and they make it, which I prefer. You learn more techniques this way. It’s practical.”
The hospitality and warmth of the people we meet is immediately apparent. Cummings says, “Turkish culture is a lot more communal that in the West. In Australia and Europe people have forgotten simple generosity… When you look at the news, everyone is talking about fear. It’s nice to live here and see that people are still kind and that family is so important. There is a different spirituality that gets lost in the West.”