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History of Mother-of-Pearl Inlay

Mother-of-pearl is the shiny, hard material that lines mussel and oyster shells and other fresh and saltwater shellfish. Mother-of-pearl inlaying, also known as mother-of-pearl marquetry, combines this material with wood to produce various decorative items.
The earliest examples of this art are found on Sumerian tombstones dated to 4000 B.C. Mother-of pearl marquetry was practised especially in eastern countries in the past. It reached a peak of excellence under the Ottoman Empire and became an ornamentation technique of which classic examples can be found in Turkish-Islamic art.

From the 15th century onwards, it was one of the handcrafts popular for ornamenting the doors and windows of mosques, palaces and mansions, and also for accessories used in these buildings.
Although this art was widely practised in the Far East, it reached its peak in Anatolia under the Seljuks and Ottomans. Experts recognize five separate schools:
1- Viennese: In this technique employed in Austria, mother-of pearl compositions are separated by metal such as brass, copper and lead, and mounted on black furniture. The metal plates are surrounded by brass wires, and the mother-of-pearl is shattered randomly and fixed between.
2- Far Eastern: this is the overall name given to the marquetry crafted in countries such as India, China, Japan and Vietnam; which employs coloured mother-of-pearl and picturesque motifs, generally on a black background.
3- Istanbul: A method whereby mother-of-pearl, bağ, ivory and gemstones are inlaid to make star, polygonal and other geometric designs.
4- Jerusalem: Marquetry is used on models of the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, or to depict the mosque in relief on items such as book covers and frames.
5- Damascus: A pre-drawn pattern is transferred onto a walnut frame. Wires are glued along the lines and the mother-of-pearl hammered inside.

With the contributions of diver Ahmet Ağa and architect “Sedefkar” (mother-of-pearl craftsman) Mehmet Ağa, over a hundred workshops were opened in Istanbul and inlaying became an important sector employing over five thousand people. Unfortunately, the decline of the Ottoman Empire also brought the decline of this craft. A famous mother-of-pearl craftsman was Sultan Abdulhamid II, who made inlaid items in the workshop he set up in Yıldız Palace. The Padishah was an expert carpenter and inlayer, and the mother-of-pearl marquetry table and cabinet set he made became known through films about them. The craft later came to an almost complete stand still before being revived in Gaziantep.
In Gaziantep, mother-of-pearl inlay was first employed only on gun handles. However, from the 1960’s, led by Nizipli Hanif Usta, it began to be used on other accessories and furniture, and developed rapidly. In Gaziantep, wire filigree work was incorporated into the designs, this technique adding a new dimension to marquetry the world over. Masterpieces were created with skilfully combined wire and mother-of-pearl. Although the art as practised in Gaziantep bore similarities to the Damascus school, it is evident that the craftsmen developed the school further and created brand new handiwork.

The contents of this publication, which has been funded through the 2010 Economic Development Financial Support Programme of the Silk Road Development Agency, does not represent the views of the Silk Road Development Agency and/or the Ministry of Development. The Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce is the sole bearer of responsibility for the contents.