Modest yet magnificent, jet is the black pearl of the subterranean realm, extracted with difficulty and polished with skill.
Erzurum is a city of eastern Anatolia. A place where the wind blows hard and, as it does so, tosses things in the air. A place where life flows calmly and crazily straight to the human heart. Erzurum is a highland city where ruins from the Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman periods keep the past alive even today. At almost 2000 meters in altitude, a city of highland plateaus, vast plains, waterfalls and brave-hearted people. Where life is an integrated whole with its folk songs, folk tales, kebabs... and jet. One of the oldest decorative materials known to man, jet is also one of the most potent symbols of Erzurum, in whose soil the highest quality specimens of it are found. Jet, which is found in large amounts in several villages of one particular township, is extracted with difficulty by the hardworking local people. Storing and shaping the stone requires an equal degree of care and labor. Every master works with the precision of a sculptor, carving and sanding the soft stone with a special, twice-tempered steel knife. The stones, which are polished with chalk dust and olive oil, are transformed into everything from rings, necklaces and earrings to cigarette holders. And the indispensable prayer beads carried by Muslim men are also made of this magnificent stone.
QUEEN VICTORIA’S STONE
Jet, which is formed from fossilized resin or petrified wood, is a form of soft lignite. Its predominant color is black although stone of greyish-green is also encountered, albeit rarely. The history of jet, which is extracted at several places around the world, dates back to the Bronze Age. Wealthy Romans used it for jewelry and valuable decorative items. In the Middle Ages, rosaries, boxes for sacred relics and sculptures were fashioned from its black stone. According to written sources, jet dust was even prescribed by doctors as a medicament in the 17th century. But jet had its heyday in the period of Queen Victoria, who launched a fashion by wearing jet jewelry to the end of her days in mourning for her deceased husband, Prince Albert. Everyone who could afford it in those days started wearing rings, brooches and necklaces made of the stone. In Erzurum meanwhile, as far as we can glean from the masters who still practice the art of their ancestors, the working of jet has a history going back some 200-250 years.
A LABOR OF LOVE AND PATIENCE
Extracting jet from the earth is both difficult and time-consuming. The villages in Erzurum where it is found are characterized by rough terrain and steep slopes, making the mines accessible only on foot. Steep galleries of 80 cm in diameter are opened in the hollowed out sections of mountains using time-honored methods passed down from father to son by the local people. Inside these galleries, where only two people can work together, illumination is supplied either by a flashlight or a miner’s lamp. The work is done using such ancient tools as a pick, shovel, hammer and chisel. Little jet ore can be extracted from a single vein since these tend to be very thin and sometimes are interrupted and disappear altogether. Although the stone is very soft when extracted from the earth, it hardens immediately upon contact with the air. Consequently it is essential that it be removed from the gallery and stored in a damp environment until it can be polished. Extracted with great labor, this mineral is sent to small workshops where it is first classified according to the type of decorative object to be designed, and then worked on a hand-operated wheel—a labor of love requiring, above all, super-human patience. The trick is to keep the stone soft and damp, and it is therefore preserved in water until it is processed, while the remainder is reburied.
BEWARE OF IMITATIONS
Jet is still worked today in the Rüstempaşa Bedesten. This historic market, also known as the Taşhan or ‘Stone Khan’, was built by Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha, son-in-law of Süleyman the Magnificent. It is a first stop for those who would like to see the jet workshops and own one of these ‘black pearls’ of the underground, which are also known as Erzurum stone, black amber, ‘sengi’ and ‘musa’.
Prayer beads are by far the most common product made of jet. Jet rosaries, whose fame has spread even beyond Turkey, become even more resplendent and beautiful as they are handled. Consisting of either 33 or 99 beads, their names vary depending on the nature of the silver workmanship employed. Unfortunately these lovely gifts of nature also have their imitations, which can be distinguished from the genuine article in several different ways. For example, if you breathe on a piece of jet, it will absorb the moisture and sweat. The characteristic weight and dull clicking sound produced when the beads knock against each other are further distinguishing features. Glass beads by contrast are much heavier and plastic ones much lighter. If a red-hot needle held against a bead makes a hole in it, that bead is not jet, for jet cannot be pierced with a needle. And since it acquires static electricity when rubbed, it will attract small scraps of paper. When scratched slightly with a knife, true jet produces a brown dust. Every master has his own story to tell about jet, which resists time’s depredations and gleams more brightly with the heat of the human body.
THE MAGIC OF THE BLACK STONE
Old people have a story they are fond of telling their grandchildren. And in the telling of it, past and present become inextricably mixed up. It goes like this: Blind Ali had a daughter of surpassing beauty, a wild girl who chased a colorful butterfly in her gaily printed shalvar pants with her scarf flying in the wind, and was tossed from side by side like a bee in search of pollen. One day this beautiful girl fell to daydreaming beside a sparkling lake. At that very moment, the sky poured down to earth like a spring and, as if life had suddenly changed, the girl fell under the spell of a story told by her grandmother. Earth and sky ceased to exist; there was only that moment and that darkly handsome young man. When they had gazed into each other’s eyes for hours, a gleaming black pearl suddenly materialized at the youth’s neck. Exactly what it was is uncertain; what is certain is that that stone was the elixir of love. Like a magnet, his love drew the girl’s heart, which became a glowing ember. And to the end of her days she sang laments of love to that young man in the water. That magical stone was jet, which is rumored by the local people to have extraordinary powers. Every young man and woman, every person who is in love, believes in the magical power of the black pearl. And this story, handed down from generation to generation, is rewritten every day in the handiwork of the jet masters. Every miner in time discerns Ali’s daughter in the stone. Every master shapes his own love in his hands. And the carved stone becomes one with our body as its love is engraved on our heart...