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Turquoise Mountain: Preserving culture through craft

Turquoise Mountain is a non- profit foundation that strives to preserve both historic buildings and traditional crafts in Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Middle East. In an ever-changing world, it recognises the importance of promoting cultures and heritage from around the globe, bringing ancient crafts to life through young and upcoming artisans. The charity was founded in Afghanistan in 2006 by HRH The Prince of Wales, with an aim to rebuild historic communities whilst generating new streams of income through both heritage and craft.

To date, 150 historic buildings have been restored by the foundation in the Old City of Kabul, though its feats do not stop there. The foundation has also trained over 6,000 artisans, treated almost 136,000 patients at its very own clinic, and curated major international exhibitions all around the world, from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. As part of a renewed bid to preserve culture, the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in the heart of the Old City of Kabul is now training the next generation of artisans through an intensive three-year course. There, young Afghans can hone their skills and graduate with an internationally accredited qualification, as well as the knowledge they need to set up their own business, and the skills to earn a sustainable income through craftsmanship for years to come.

Traditional jewellery design

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Now, for the first time ever, the group has now delved into traditional jewellery design from this region of the world. It comes as the foundation has launched its very own, new handmade jewellery collection, which was unveiled earlier this month at jeweller’s Vicki Sarge in London. Handcrafted by its team of talented artisans in Kabul, each piece is inspired by the rich heritage and traditions of Afghanistan.

Each piece in the collection utilises gold vermeil, gold plated brass or “vibrant” lapis lazuli, with each piece made to order. According to the foundation, the resulting collection draws its inspiration from the steeped history and culture of Afghanistan. Inspirations range from the “iconic” architecture of the Gardens of Babur, to the “decorative” geometric patterns found in a wide range of Afghan art. Four emerging  designers who designed pieces for the latest collection, Nasrin Ibrahimi, Shazia Amiry, Saeeda Etebari and Arif Khan Khalidi, spoke more about their respective creative processes, and how inspirations differ between each individual. “I am generally inspired by nature, I would say”, says Amiry. “I too would say that my designs are mostly inspired by nature”, adds Ibrahimi, who also designs gold plated pieces for the latest collection. “I have a piece, for example, that is called Bahar, which is inspired by the blossom of an apple tree at springtime, hence its name, which means spring.” Khalidi adds: “I’m also inspired by seeing beautiful patterns in nature all around me. I then take those patterns and use them to create my designs.”

Inspiration 

Amiry elaborates by explaining that she is continuously inspired to create by forms in nature that she witnesses throughout the year, but adds that she also appreciates and takes inspiration from the “richness” that comes from every Turquoise Mountain designer’s “unique style”. Etebari also shares these same sentiments, and looks to other traditional and well-known designers when creating. “When I see other famous designer’s designs, it inspires me to experiment and try new things”, she says, adding that her home environment is the main driver behind her own particular design styles. Ibrahimi notes that she is “particularly inspired” by the places and buildings around her, especially monuments that are wrapped in history. “I also have another piece called Borj, meaning tower, which is inspired by the towers of a historical palace for example”, she adds. Khalidi similarly takes inspiration from his native Afghanistan, and these influences can be seen in many of the designs born from this collaboration. His designs, for example, feature the geometric patterns that can be found in the historic buildings of Kabul. “I think that above all, we are inspired to make by seeing designs worn and loved”, concludes Amiry. And now, for the first time ever, their creations are being brought to the UK through the latest collaboration with Sarge, with Turquoise Mountain noting that it wishes to connect its young artisans with international buyers from around the world.

Having heard more about what inspires these women, when asked if they have a particular piece in their upcoming collections that was their favourite to create Ibrahimi interestingly notes that: “To be honest, a jewellery maker’s favourite piece is always something they have worked hard to create, whether it is a necklace, chain, or ring. When you are carefully crafting something, polishing it, and finishing it, to create something of a high-quality and bring to life something in your mind – that is what makes you love a piece.” A notion that her fellow designers wholeheartedly agree with: “You can only design what you love to design, I believe if there is no love there is no design,” muses Etebari. Khalidi similarly says that it is the design process itself that “brings great joy to me and others, as far as I have seen”, adding that “every designer that I have met loves to design and likes what they do”.

Design process

When asked about their respective design processes, and the journey between their inspirations and final products. Ibrahimi says: “First, I sketch the design in a notebook. Then I select materials of the highest standard and quality. If needed, I roll the metal, and then treat it. After I have carefully molded the shape of my design, I then polish and finish the piece.” “I am usually inspired by something, and the first thing I do is think about the feasibility of crafting something using that inspiration”, adds Amiry. “I think about the metal I should be using, and then ask myself if the piece should have stone or not. If yes, then what type of stone? Then I start sketching it, and then make the piece according to the sketch.” Etebari adds that the first step in her own design process is to “go to a place that I love and try to find the beauty in nature around me”. She continues: “When I have found my inspiration, I take a pen and paper and sketch a design. Then I create the design by hand.” “I am excited by every step of the process”, Khalidi concludes. “I start by drawing what has inspired me, and from that, I create my design. I always pay attention to the little details, making sure each piece is correct and of a high quality.”

Innovation

Turquoise Mountain ultimately strives to preserve ancient crafts from around the world, and bring historic elements of jewellery design into the modern age, while promoting both tradition and culture. Since its launch, Turquoise Mountain has built over 50 small artisan businesses in jewellery, as well as woodwork, ceramics, calligraphy and miniature painting, weaving, lacquerware, metalwork, and more, supporting a new generation of artisan entrepreneurs who will not only drive economic development but also preserve their unique cultures and traditions.

As a result, the four female designers now all believe that traditional crafts from the Middle East could see a resurgence in the industry in the coming years. “Traditional crafts are very important, as they showcase a country’s cultural identity and act as ambassadors for its people”, says Ibrahimi. “That is why I believe crafts will become more and more popular.”

Etebari also believes that traditional crafts, particularly with jewellery, will become more popular in the coming years, adding that “more people will appreciate the uniqueness of handcrafted pieces”. After a brief pause, Amiry concludes: “Yes, I believe it is possible. “More and more people now understand that traditional crafts are better and more beautiful than machine-made crafts. The important thing is to innovate, to create new opportunities for people to work in traditional crafts.”

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