The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey is known for its enchanting architecture, the exquisite carvings and murals that decorate the palace walls, the lavish lifestyle of its inhabitants, and of course the riches of jewels and gold hidden away in its treasury.
The palace was an important part of Ottoman history, a hub of literature, music, art, and Ottoman culture during the height of the empire. As a hub of the arts, jewelry making was especially important. Not only was the intricate jewelry beautiful, but it also was a show of an individual’s wealth and power. Worn by men and woman alike, jewelry making was, and still is an integral part of Islamic culture today. Considered one of the higher forms of art, jewelers not only made artisan jewelry but decorated everything from utensils and boxes, to clothes and weapons. And where better to find the finest assortment of treasures then from the royal treasury of the fabled Topkapi Palace.
It wasn’t until Sultan Abdülmecid(1839–61) that the treasury became open to public view, and with it, a higher appreciation for the craftsmanship of some of histories greatest artisans. Two pieces in particular stand out for their extravagance and workmanship. The first being the Spoonmaker’s Diamond.
One of the largest diamonds in the world, weighing in at 86 carats, this pear-shaped diamond is the Treasury’s most valuable single exhibit. It is considered the fourth largest diamond of its kind in the world. A teardrop pendant to be strung on a necklace, it has been inspirational for Ottoman and Turkish jewelry. But despite being so well liked for its vibrancy and rarity, its history remains a mystery. Little is known about this jewels past but it certainly has the stories to match its sparkly façade, most commonly pertaining to its namesake.
As the story goes, a poor man found the gem in a pile of garbage. The poor man, not knowing what it was, is said to have then traded it away for a mere three wooden spoons. Keep in mind that this is one of the world’s largest diamonds. It was at least worth the bribes, ships and soldiers Napoleon’s Mother is rumors to have pawned it away for when trying to save her son from exile. We may never know the true history of this sparkly jewel, but this celebrated treasure will continue to awe and inspire many to come.
The second treasure, the Emerald Dagger, is a 17th century masterpiece made at the height of the Islamic jewelry making tradition.
Decorated weapons, typically worn by men, were an especially popular display of wealth. These weapons, much like the jewelry, were ornate and colorful. With enamel flower motifs, and inlayed jewels or Arabic calligraphy, they were a staple form of traditional Islamic or Arabic art. The Ayat al Kursi or verses of the throne were often inscribed on garments, weapons and jewelry as a form of protection.
The dagger had not been meant to stay in Topkapi Palace. It was crafted as a gift to the imposing Iranian ruler Nadir Shah, a man who today is thought of as one of Persia’s greatest leaders. However the embassy had only just crossed the boarder when news of the ruler’s assassination reached them. With heavy hearts they returned home and the dagger remained in Istanbul. The dagger later regained its fame when shown in “The Light of Day” a popular Hollywood heist film released in 1964. Since then it has remained one of the most celebrated treasures of Istanbul.
These two treasures are relics of the past, but their artistic heritage inspires us even today. Much of what makes these masterpieces so beautiful lives on in current Islamic, Arabic, and Muslim jewelry making traditions. From the aesthetic, to the subject, to the intricacy born from a rich history for the appreciation of the arts.
Worn by men and woman alike, historical motifs, enameled flowers, and decorative calligraphy from the Quran are highlights of Middle Eastern and Arabic jewelry today, as much as they were in the past.
Even though most of us cannot afford a museum quality diamond, we can still enjoy inspired Islamic jewelry designs at Artizara, celebrating the tradition and history of Islamic, Arabic and Muslim jewelry.