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Istanbul silversmith keeps dying art alive

ISTANBUL - Hurriyet Daily News | 8/5/2010 12:00:00 AM | MEHVEŞ KONUK

Tucked away behind piles of tools and late-1980s CDs in his workshop, one silversmith keeps plying his trade as the art he has dedicated his life to becomes obsolete.

Tucked away behind piles of tools and late-1980s CDs in his Istanbul workshop, longtime silversmith Raffi Gobel continues plying his trade as the difficult, expensive art he has dedicated his life to fast becomes obsolete.

Sales have declined drastically in the last 10 years, Gobel, a silversmith for a quarter of a century, says bitterly as he runs his fingers through the contents of a box of pure silver pebbles. The silver is dense and malleable in his hands.

These days, silver-filigree bowls and chandeliers are no longer coveted coffee-table items or wedding gifts; instead, over grandma’s objections, they are bundled up in cloth and tucked into the bottom drawer.

The process of making such objects, however, is as delicate and involved as ever.

Silver objects can only be made by combining the raw metal with another material, generally copper, Gobel explains; since silver is so malleable, pure silver objects would bend and ripple in their owners’ hands. He takes out a piece of 91 percent silver and bends it in two with his pinky finger. He tries it again with a 75 percent piece, which yields with much more difficulty.

True silverwork starts only after the alloy is pressed into flat pieces called plaques, which are then shaped and welded, commonly into round cups, goblets, open-mouth ashtrays and candlesticks. Gobel takes out his design catalog and shows the various types of objects that can be made to order, then demonstrates by strapping himself to a chest-high mill and smoothing the ends of a plaque to make the edge of a goblet. He rolls the plaque around and says: “There. You have your mouthpiece.”

Gobel has built a “welding hole” in one of his walls, a niche where he can weld while looking through bars into the winter garden of the Mahmutbey Bazaar, where his workshop is located. He lights his Bunsen burner and welds a round silver cup into a curvy ashtray. With welding, he explains, he can make extensions to a silver object in a couple of hours. “It is a slow art,” says Gobel, who learned the craft of silver working from his father.

“The hardest part is decoration,” Gobel says, pointing to what appears to be a collection of scraps sitting in a number of different drawers. Borders, ribbon and bird drawings and illustrations are all carved into the silver with these small nails.

“You can draw anything onto a silver object, really. Look at this candlestick I thought of making when I was in San Francisco,” he says, taking out a fat silver candlestick embedded with symmetrical slits. “I saw [a wooden version] on a Mexican church’s altar, so I got the model from them and made the same thing from silver. It turned out great.”

To show how filigree is made, Gobel takes the ashtray he has been welding and makes a couple of marks in it. He explains that the borders and ribbons on finished silver pieces are drawn with the nails, but one must be very careful to not make mistakes.

The walls of Gobel’s workshop are covered with pencil drawings. “There was a young boy who worked here; he made those. Now he works as a painter for the Istanbul Municipality,” he says.

Gobel does not sell directly to customers, nor does he make jewelry, something he calls a separate art. Instead, he sells to shops, where the silver pieces are polished and put on display. He points to a shop a few doors down, saying that some of his finished work is for sale there.

When the melting, bending, welding and etching is finally done, Gobel says, the shopkeeper takes out a blackening rag and makes the objects shine before he puts them on display. Then all that is left is to wait for customers.

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