“It has just become a fact of life that, in the luxury industry, we tend to talk about western companies,” says Osman Geylan. “Historically, Istanbul is just outside of that bubble and yet its jewellery makers draw on the best of both worlds – a meeting of western and eastern aesthetics, much like the city itself.” Geylan is right to feel a little frustrated. While Gilan (the family jewellers of which he is vice president) was only founded in 1980 by his father and uncle, Muharrem and Ferhan Gilan, the tradition of ‘haute’ jewellery-making in Turkey goes back at least 600 years. “Educating people about that history could improve the perception of luxury goods from Turkey,” he says. “After all, the region once represented a high point in civilisation, from science to architecture and the arts.”
It was in the 15th century that the Sultan established Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, which would become the focal point for artisans from both the east and west for centuries. “In fact, our craftsmen are typically direct descendants of those artisans. They feel personally committed to keeping crafts alive that might otherwise be lost,” says Geylan. Certainly, Gilan’s growth has assisted in that. The company started with a tiny, 1.5sqm boutique. It now has stores across the world, from New York to the Ritz Paris, with pieces that start around $2,000 and can reach up to a $2m price tag. Their work is the sort that you’ll see decorating the graceful necks of Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz when on red carpet duties.
Gilan is so highly respected in Istanbul that, back in 1999, it was asked to help renovate the treasury room of the Topkapi Palace. “It might not have been the motivation for getting involved with the project, but working on the palace did help to put our name on the jewellery map,” concedes Geylan, whose great-great-great-great grandmother was a dressmaker to the Ottoman pashas. “We’ve always tried to think of the company as adding to the wider culture. We hope pieces will be handed down, mother to daughter, and we’ve been around long enough now to see that beginning to happen. We like to take the long view – that is why we’re thinking beyond the current political situation here in Turkey. Dealing with those kinds of issues is what makes you.”
But what sets Gilan apart is not just history but technique. The company has won a reputation not only for its signature style – which plays on the symbolism of eastern cultures, transforming them into highly stylised motifs that nod to the legends of the Silk Road, mythic animals and the Buddhist three-circle çintemani – but for its use of sophisticated techniques, most prominently placing rose cut gems in closed settings so that the jewels seem to hover.
That, of course, comes with its own problems, not least maintaining the company’s rarefied skills base. “The number of craftspeople who can make our jewellery is decreasing, especially when you’re talking about those at the master craftsman level. It takes decades to get to that stage,” says Geylan. “We’re always on the lookout for new talent and keeping them busy from the start. The trick to learning a handcraft of this kind is to practise it all the time.” It pays off in the exquisitely sculptural designs that characterise Gilan’s creations, every piece inspired by a long and fantastical story. “These stories are so rich; our latest collection is inspired by four historic women who saved thrones, broke new ground, led armies – they’re hard to ignore,” he says. “We look to a visual and cultural history that goes back thousands of years.” And that, he hints at, isn’t something many western brands can lay a claim to.