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MOTHER-OF-PERL INLAY
2001 /JANUARY

In the back streets of Gaziantep, steeped in the atmosphere of fairytale, an elderly craftsman, his face burnished by years in the sun, was giving a final polish to a wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. This beautiful box would be able to contain the dreams of everyone, including the Little Prince. Soon it would be placed in a shop window to draw the eyes of passers-by with its exquisite shimmering patterns. I followed the old man into his workshop, where he inlayed all kinds of objects, from coat stands to mirrors, chairs and tables, but above all boxes, to listen to the story of his craft.

In Gaziantep mother-of-pearl inlay is used to decorate every conceivable kind of wooden object. The best wood for inlay is the local walnut. Did you know that the walnut tree takes photographs? The craftsman surprised me by explaining that when you cut a paper thin sliver of wood from a walnut tree over a century old, you find an image of its surroundings drawn across every layer of wood in the trunk.

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MOTHER-OF-PERL INLAY
2001 /JANUARY

But to continue, having made the object to be inlaid and sanded it down well, the craftsman draws the intricate outline of his design with practised hand, and the delicate process of inlaying begins. Each time the motifs and patterns are different, making every piece unique.Having drawn the design, he cuts out the lines and inserts brass or sometimes gold or silver wire according to the custom'sgs wishes. The next step is to cut out the central areas between the stringing to form shallow recesses for the mother-of-pearl. The quality of the mother-of-pearl is vital. Although in Gaziantep it is traditional to declare to a new friend, 'Let us be salt and bread', the presence of salt on mother-of-pearl is bad news to the inlayer. If salt has collected inside the mollusc shell, then the mother-of-pearl which lines it becomes brittle and impossible to work.

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MOTHER-OF-PERL INLAY
2001 / JANUARY

Therefore freshwater molluscs, whose mother-of-pearl becomes milk white when worked, are preferred. However, the finest quality of all is still mother-of-pearl from the warm tropical seas, particularly the Red Sea.

In his workroom the craftsman carefully breaks the shells into tiny pieces using pliers, and using a diamond-tipped tool shapes them to fit the recesses in the wood. The pieces are fixed into place using a mixture of walnut sawdust and glue. When the work is finished the piece must be left for at least two days before sandpapering so that the inlay is flush with the wood. Nitric acid is then applied and the piece left in the sun all day to dry. To darken the wood to a chestnut shade or black it is held over a fire after applying the nitric acid.

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MOTHER-OF-PERL INLAY
2001 / JANUARY

Finally it is rubbed with olive oil for a smooth finish and sandpapered for the last time.
Mother-of-pearl inlay is an art of great antiquity going back to the Sumerians. This type of decoration was very popular in Ottoman times, and is to be found on everything from Kuran cases to clocks, and from tobacco boxes to the wooden pattens worn by women at Turkish baths. Visitors to Topkapi Palace today can admire the magnificent mother-of-pearl inlay on one of the imperial thrones, and other works of art preserved here. As well as inlay, mother-of-pearl is applied to objects by two other techniques: veneering and macunlama, or setting in paste.

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MOTHER-OF-PERL INLAY
2001 / JANUARY

Whether a verse from the Kuran inlaid in an ebony panel, elaborate decoration on a hand mirror, or patterns on the legs of a chair, the incandescent sheen of mother-of-pearl decoration reminds me of the dreams which captivate us all. When I left the shop with a mother-of-pearl box in my hands, I was smiling happily. In my mind's eye I saw a group of children who had returned forlornly home, having deposited their dreams in a box which could never be theirs, now running towards me joyfully. For all of us boxes are irresistible treasure chests of memories, photographs and dreams.

 

* Nezahat Turkan is a freelance writer

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