Story by Lorena F. Aspe // Photos by Katie Kriz
ISTANBUL, Turkey – In the oldest part of the Grand Bazaar, amid hundreds of jewelry stores, lies a hidden gem.
The shop looks like any other from the outside, displaying bracelets with the evil eye, necklaces studded with charms, and golden rings with colorful, uncut stones for tourists to gaze at as they walk the narrow, crowded streets of one of the largest, covered marketplaces in the world.
But Güleç Stone Tasçilik, a fixture for the last decade in what’s called the Cevahir Bedesten section of the Bazaar, offers something different than all the rest.
Inside, customers will find stunning Ottoman-style rings with elegant gemstones in every color, and wide, thick bracelets with strands of tourmaline intercalated by golden plates. One-of-a-kind necklaces hang from the walls with “drozi” semiprecious stones including calcite, amethyst, citrine, opal and chalcedony. The creations also feature precious stones -diamonds, emeralds, rubies.
Ali Güleç, 31, and Mehmet Cankut, 30, greet visitors to their shop as they would old friends to their home. They chat, they laugh, they offer apple tea summoned from a young boy who goes from store to store in the thriving marketplace.
“I treat everyone like a regular, my business is all about the customers,” said Güleç, who has a baby face and a warm smile. “My first policy is to be honest. A lot of the other shop owners try to cheat people and charge them more. If you think just make money you will not succeed. I’m in the business for my customers, I want [to] make them happy.”
On a recent Monday morning, soon after the bazaar opened its 22 numbered gates, Güleç invites an American couple into his shop. They’re here from South Florida and on the hunt for gifts to bring back home.
They sit and he starts his pitch: Güleç takes out a black velvet tray and a bag of uncut stones. Then a bag of pearls. Then some of his designs. Within 45 minutes, Shelly Smith has picked out a silver and pearl necklace for herself, a citrine pendant necklace for her daughter and pieces for three other people.
“This is exactly what I am looking for,” says Smith, 55. She heard of the store from a friend who was in Istanbul two years ago. “My first impression was how beautiful and fun the things were. I am very attracted to colors, so seeing all these different stones and designs is very fun for me.”
Cankut and Güleç started in the jewelry business when they were both 12. To get extra money as boys, they would work for a man they call “Baba,” a jewelry maker in the same bazaar. They also learned from small local factories that made jewelry – cutting stones, melting metals, tying knots. They self-taught the basics of every step in the process – and so by the time they were 20, they had a store of their own.
“We have been in the business for 18 years, but I didn’t go to school for this, I learned everything in here,” Cankut said. “When I want to do something, I make it best. In my shop I always use best quality stones. That is why they are more expensive but they are nicer.”
Their pieces range from 60 Turkish Lire, or about $38, to 450 lire, which is $280.
Semra Özlenir, 49, has been a customer of Güleç Stone Tasçilik’s for seven years. She too was told of the shop by an admiring friend.
“Normally, I don’t go that far into the Grand Bazaar because it is very narrow and hot. But change is good, and I wanted to see what my friend was so praising about. So, I went to Ali’s shop and really liked it.”
Over the years, she’s bought about 200 custom-made pieces.
“They are both cultural and modern,” she continued. “He designs for a great range of customers. For example, you can find a necklace for yourself and for your 8-year old little girl.”
The process of making even a single piece of jewelry is long and involved. Güleç first inspects the stones, which they buy from India and sometimes Turkey, for their natural color, translucency, cut and size. Trips to India don’t take longer than a week because once the request is made he must immediately begin on the design phase of the process. They can fashion a piece in as little as two days.
All of their jewelry is handmade. Cankut and Güleç say they try their best to take the time to get to know each client so that the pieces can be a reflection of his or her taste and personal style.
“They make unique collections for each customer,” Özlenir said. “When a customer does not like some part of a design they think of ways to improve it and change it according to the customer’s taste. So they provide unique jewelry for each customer which is the most important thing to me.”
When it comes to designing jewelry the process unfolds in a creative and natural way for Cankut and Güleç. They are passionate about what they do.
“First you need to love your job and then work in making good design,” Güleç said. “It is like a puzzle. You start looking at the different stones, the colors and shapes and then the design come together.”