Bringing together ancient craftsmanship and modern innovations, there was only one city of choice when it came to finding a producer for Aja Botanicals’ hand-blown glass candleholders
Istanbul has long been an epicentre of crafts and culture, with its unique geographic position spanning the Bosphorus meaning it has provided the gateway between Europe and Asia for millennia. First established as the ancient city of Lygos, it has also been known as Byzantium and later Constantinople (after Constantine the Great made it the capital of both the Roman and Byzantine Empires). As such, it has always provided a crucial link between East and West – not just for trade, but also in the exchange of ideas, knowledge, skills, techniques and craftsmanship. Traditional Turkish-Islamic arts and crafts – including calligraphy, ceramics, mosaics, pearl inlay, silk weaving and glassmaking have flourished in Istanbul since the Ottoman period.
Of course, the influences flowed back in the opposite direction too – Istanbul has seen a flourishing cross-fertilisation of Roman, Venetian, Ottoman and Islamic glassmaking skills, establishing it as a leading global centre in the production and innovation of glass objects. So it was only natural that Aja Botanicals would seek this centuries-old know-how and expertise when looking for a producer to craft a range of beautiful, design-led glass candleholders to house its natural fine fragrances.
Working with local glass expert Şencam Sanayi, the emphasis is on building on traditions while embracing innovation. ‘Our master glassmakers work on each handmade product individually, meaning our goods are unique, because no two objects produced are exactly the same,’ explains Fatih Sağlam, the company’s export specialist. ‘We always search for new innovations, but mass production decreases the charm of the end result. Machine-made products all look the same; they don’t feel special, whereas we can introduce bespoke artisan techniques into the manufacturing process that increase the quality of the glass.’ Sağlam notes that the glass produced by Şencam Sanayi is distinctive for the clear-water tone of its origin colour; easily distinguishable if held up against the greener, murkier hue of machine-made glass. ‘It is the equivalent of swimming in a clear sea or one full of sea moss,’ he explains.
The path to becoming a master glassmaker is a long one. Apprentices will typically spend four years honing their skills, and another four before they can be classed as a master; but, as Sağlam points out, the process of learning never really ends (‘the training is lifelong,’ he says).
‘We are lucky that Aja Botanicals understands the importance of handmade products,’ Sağlam adds. ‘We share the same view: that to create a quality product, you need time and dedication. Good results come from staying true to the best processes, without cutting corners.’
This attitude to making permeates throughout the city: indeed, Istanbul has been named a Unesco Design City since 2017 in recognition of its rich heritage and influence, both as a source of inspiration and for its continuing commitment to innovative design. For those interested in discovering how this remarkable and fascinating city keeps its reputation for art, craft and design alive, passing skills on to new generations, there are a host of events, festivals and showcases to explore.
For a masterpiece in glassmaking, Süleymaniye Mosque, built by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in the 1550s, is a living monument that is well worth a visit: 16 glassblowers worked together during the construction of this iconic building. Enthusiasts should also pay a visit to the Beykoz Glass and Crystal Museum, which tells the story of Turkish glassmaking in depth. Other recent additions to the Istanbul skyline include the redesigned Atatürk Cultural Centre and the Galataport Istanbul retail and arts hub, boasting the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano.
Look out for the two-month long Istanbul Biennial, which runs citywide from September-November, highlighting the best in contemporary art, while Crafted in Istanbul (craftedinistanbul.com/en/) provides a reliable resource for where to go and what to see.
But the beauty of Istanbul lies in getting lost in its mixing pot of cultures and influences – exploring its many bazaars and unique neighbourhoods. While tourists flock to the world-famous Grand Bazaar, try the open-air Arasta Bazaar next to the Blue Mosque for ceramics, textiles and more handcrafted treasures. The Çukurcuma district offers Ottomon-era glassware and candlesticks alongside other antiques, furniture, lanterns and 20th-century home décor items. Serdar-i Ekrem Street, near the Galata Tower, is a must for lovers of independent boutiques, while book lovers can find everything from ancient manuscripts and maps to recent bestsellers at the Sahaflar Çarşısı Book Bazaar.
Other neighbourhoods well worth exploring include the ancient peninsula of Kuzguncuk, the nearby Ottoman Beylerbeyi Palace and the vibrant Pera district (now known by its modern name of Beyoğlu). Wherever you go, the modern and the ancient stand side-by-side, offering a rare feast for architecture and design lovers.
Mark Hooper is an award-winning editor, author, journalist and consultant. He was the founding editor of Hole & Corner magazine, a thought-leading publication focusing on craftsmanship, authenticity, integrity and sustainability within the world of design