ARMENIAN MASTER SILVERSMITHS - BOOK REVIEW BY JACK OGDEN
|ARMENIAN MASTER SILVERSMITHS|
|BOOK REVIEW BY JACK OGDEN|
Tokat’s “profound fondness for silver” was prompted by what he calls “a handful of delicate Armenian artworks” that his parents had somehow managed to hold onto when they survived the Armenian genocide of 1915. Those objects lead to his research and determination to “immortalize the names of all the wonderful master craftsmen whose talent proved insufficient for saving their lives”, the craftsmen to whom the book is dedicated. This book thus commemorates the makers as well as their products and is a revised edition of an English/Armenian version published in Yerevan, Armenia in 2005.
Armenian craftsmen and merchants have played a fundamental part in the history of jewellery and jewellery materials, but all too often are ignored or forgotten in the largely western perspective of scholarly books and articles written over the last century.
The present volume is mainly focused on the silversmithing traditions in and around Van and, appropriately, puts its subject in context by opening with histories of the Armenians and the Van region from mythical beginnings and through antiquity as, one after the other, the great powers passed through it or conquered it. These included the armies of Alexander the Great, the Romans, Parthians, Sassanians, the Arabs and, of course, the Ottomans.
|Nielloed silver eggcup
with coral holder. 12 x 7 cm.
հաւկիթագաւաթ կորալ-բռնակով։ 12 x 7 cm։
|Conquerors can, and all too often do, destroy art and the artists, but in many cases they also absorb and disseminate. Tokat explains how the flowering of all the arts through the Ottoman empire, gold and silversmithing included, was largely thanks to the skills of Armenian craftsmen. Armenian gold-and silversmiths were being resettled in Istanbul by the early 1500s and soon overtook Greeks as being the predominant such craftsmen in the City. When Sultan Selim III (1789 - 1807) required gold and silver gifts for Napoleon Bonaparte, he turned to the Duzian family to make them.|
|Silver collection, 123 gr., private collection
Արծաթեայ վզնոց, 123 գր., մասնաւոր հաւաքածու
Following the history of the Armenians and Van comes a chapter dealing with the development of the gold-and silversmith’s arts in Armenia and includes illustrations of some early gold pieces in the History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan – objects hitherto not well known outside of Armenia.
The bulk of the book, of course, almost 130 pages, deals with the Armenian craftsmen in Van and their work. Some of the recorded names can be associated with surviving works
|A remarkable example is the Kevork Kuyumjubashian’s silver globe. The globe is supported on Atlas’s back and has a proportionately-sized moon rotating around it. It weighs eight kilos and is half a metre high. Most of the silver work illustrated and described is on a far smaller scale and is characterised by intricate niello work, such as the tobacco boxes with dense geometric patterning and scenes of cities and major buildings. Particularly charming are the water bowls with a central articulated fish|
|Niello, as Tokat says, “has a unique place in Armenian art”. Of particular interest to this reviewer are the niello recipes from three Armenian silversmiths in Van and Tavriz. They differ – a useful reminder to those researching earlier niello that consistency among craftsmen, even at the same time and place, cannot be assumed.|
|The range of nielloed silver objects is indeed extraordinary, from cosmetic boxes to a whip with built in whistle, from inking pads to umbrella handle. One popular type of nielloed silver tobacco case took the form of a rectangular envelope complete with engraved stamp and date. According to Istanbul master craftsman Hagop Sakayan, it was impossible for young people to openly express feelings of affection, and so young women would give such a tobacco case to the object of their love.|
|Another feature of courtship and betrothal was the silver engagement ring case. An old Armenian tradition meant the groom-to-be’s family placed the engagement ring in such a case where it was first blessed by the local priest or bishop, and then handed to the bride-to-be’s family|
Shining light upon such objects, their makers, marks and past meanings and purposes adds so much to our appreciation of the objects and of the societies that commissioned, made and treasured them.
The penultimate chapter deals with Armenian gold- and silversmiths “beyond Van”. This follows the diaspora and looks at the Armenian craftsmen in other parts of the world – including Russia, the Caucasus, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, India, Iran, and various cities which are now in Turkey and Syria. The scope of the final chapter with the poignant title “The Last Armenian Master Silversmiths of Istanbul” is self explanatory. The sadness with which we learn of the diaspora of Armenian silversmiths from throughout the Ottoman world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is of course leavened by the knowledge that, in Tokat’s words, they “immigrated to all four corners of the world, taking with them their craft, talent and skills.”
|Nielloed silver ewer.
Height 10 cm. Author’s collection.
Սեւատապատուած արծաթեայ կուժ։
Բարձրութիւնը 10 cm։ Յեղինակի հաւաքածոյ։
|One can level a few criticisms at the book, but in almost every case these reflect Tokat’s enthusiastic championing of his craftsmen over and above any others. For example, his statement that the Armenians “brought the arts of gold and silver-making to Egypt” would raise the eyebrows of anyone who looked at ancient Egyptian gold work or that of Medieval Fatamid date. Slightly different wording might have been better, but it is also a reminder that a wider investigation into the gold- and silver-smith’s art in Islamic lands between about the 13th and 17th centuries is long overdue. A few more details of actual manufacture would also have been desirable, although there are some photos of silversmiths at work. For example, a section on filigree work – to match the section on niello recipes would have been welcome. As would an explanation of how that Trabizond style chain work was made – not knowing has been a source of frustration for this reviewer for years.|
|But those are minor quibbles. Osep Tokat’s remarkable Armenian master silversmiths has provided the windows through which we can trace his craftsmen and their artistry. With its amply illustrated coverage of makers, their marks and the appealing objects they produced, it is an important reference book as well as a beautiful one – a worthy tribute to the virtuosos silversmiths that it celebrates.|
|“Armenian craftsmen and merchants have played a fundamental part in the history of jewellery and jewellery materials, but all too often are ignored or forgotten in the largely western perspective of scholarly books and articles”|
Jack Ogden is a British historian whose academic research over some 45 years has focused on the historical use, technology and trading of gems and precious metals. He has written several books and numerous articles on these subjects and lectured worldwide. Most recently he has published Diamonds; an early history of the king of gems (Yale University Press 2018). He has been awarded a Doctorate from Durham University, the Gem-A Gemmology Diploma (with distinction) and the Diploma in Art Profession Law and Ethics (with distinction) from the Institute of Art and Law. He is an elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and president of the Society of Jewellery Historians. He lives in Oxfordshire, UK.