Shells could be regarded as a symbol of longevity since they survive for millions of years as fossils. At the same time certain mollusk shells, principally the pearl oyster but also many other species are the source of pearls and mother of pearl, the iridescent inner layer below the horny exterior. The large shells of warm seas produce the thickest layers of this composite material. Its use in the decorative arts is thought to have originated in the lands of the Near East since the earliest known examples of the mother of pearl decoration have been discovered in Sumerian tombs. The use of the material was also widespread in China, India, and Thailand, and is thought to have passed from there to the Turks of Central Asia, who carried the art into Anatolia.
This delicate substance was particularly favored as an inlay material on wood, which is why so few early examples have survived. But from Marco Polo and Byzantine envoys to the Turkish lands we learn that the Turks were skilled in the art of working this material and in making items decorated with this material.
Mother of Pearl during Ottoman Era
The earliest example of the Ottoman period inlay works is the doors of the Mosque of Bayezid II in Edirne. Over the centuries, it was used to embellish a wide variety of objects, from Koran cases to the canopied pavilions of royal barges, from janissary sword hilts to calligraphers’ writing sets, and from turban stands to the wooden patterns of grand ladies. According to Hocazade Saadeddin in his account of the funeral of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (1451-1481), the coffin was made of the solid component, although presumably, this means that it was veneered. A specific workshop was set up in Topkapi Palace in the 15th century, and the art taught to apprentices.
Perhaps because working this material is an art requiring careful measuring and a sense of scale to show the material to best effect, a disproportionate number of the famous architects educated at the Ottoman palace were also the same craftsmen. The 16th and 17th centuries were a time when objects of personal use and domestic furnishings decorated with this material were the height of fashion in Istanbul. It continued to be used in works of architecture, exceptional examples including the shelled jewelry inlay for the doors of Murad III’s tomb at Hagia Sophia Mosque executed by Dalgic Ahmed Aga, and the window frames and main doors of Sultanahmet Mosque executed by the architect Mehmed Aga. The 17th-century writer and traveler Evliya Celebi, writing in the reign of Murad IV, recorded that the craftsmen numbered 500 and had 100 shops in Istanbul, and says that their patron saint was Suayb-i Hindi.
The 19th century saw the decline of the mother of pearl work, and by the end of the 19th century, we find just two glowing sparks in the guttering candle of the art: Sultan Abdulhamid II and Sedefkar Vasif.
Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) was a skilled cabinetmaker and enjoyed working in the workshop which he established at Yildiz Palace, producing some lovely pieces of work. Sedefkar Vasif was born in Besiktas in 1876, and studied carpentry and carving at the Naval College, from which he graduated with the rank of lieutenant at the age of 22. In 1912, at the age of 36, he retired with the rank of colonel and opened a workshop in Besiktas. The last outstanding pieces of Turkish inlay are the doors which he made for the apartment of the Holy Mantle at Topkapi Palace. In 1936 a workshop was established at the Academy of Fine Arts and Vasif Sedef (who had taken the surname Sedef, meaning mother of pearl) was appointed as the instructor, a post which he held until his death in 1940. His only successor was Nerses Semercioglu, the last professional Turkish craftsman, who died in 1982 and with the rediscovery of the art in the 1950s had been able to make a living from his skill. Today there are a few self-taught craftsmen of caliber.
Apart from the inlay, the two other techniques used in Turkish work are veneer and “macunlama”, the latter a process by which pieces of the goods are pressed into a soft paste, giving the effect of inlay. Where the style, motifs, and applications of the work are concerned, the work is divided into four different categories: Istanbul, Damascus, Vienna, and Jerusalem.
The first two of these are entirely Ottoman Turkish in character. Istanbul, which employs either inlay or veneer, also makes use of tortoiseshell, ivory, horn and similar materials in conjunction with this colorful jewelry component. Gold leaf is laid beneath the tortoiseshell, along with the other materials, it is mainly arranged in geometric designs.
Damascus: made its appearance in that city during the Ottoman era, also makes use of inlay. Here only one side of the thick white one known in Turkish as tas “sedef” which comes from the pearl oyster, is smoothed and polished, the rough underside of the shaped pieces being laid into the wood. Wire stringing 1 mm square in the section made from an alloy of lead and tin is hammered into place around the composite material.
Vienna: is the use of this jewelry, arranged irregularly in conjunction with Boulle marquetry. This work, using the iridescent green or rose-red “sedef” known as “arusek” was mainly applied to tables, couches, cupboards, sideboards, and other furniture.
Jerusalem: is the art of carving mother of pearl into two-dimensional models of mosques and other figurative motifs, or designs of floral and animal motifs. Its craftsmen do not use inlay to embellish furniture or artifacts.