Detailed, colorful Iznik ceramics are a popular Turkish souvenir. So much so that mass-produced replicas—with printed rather than handmade designs—are sold in droves on the streets of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area for as low as $5 each. But the real pieces are valuable beyond the sentimental: a 2006 Christie’s lot of 15th-century Iznik pottery dishes sold for over $500,000. The cheap knock-offs are lovely and plentiful, but once you learn the difference, you’ll know why tracking down a real Iznik is worth the effort. The intricate production process is more than just craftsmanship; it also draws upon a rich cultural heritage. Here’s what you need to know about genuine Iznik pottery—and where to find it.
What makes ceramics from Iznik, an Anatolian town of bygone fame, special? The region’s pottery tradition stretches back to prehistoric times, but the art form blossomed under the Ottomans. In the late 15th century, craftsmen of Iznik replaced the traditional clay used in ceramics with quartz. The innovative technique produced a bright white base that made the four traditional colors found in Iznik pieces–turquoise, cobalt, malachite, and coral–stand out under a thick transparent glaze.
Ottoman sultans favored the new look and soon exquisite Iznik çini (pronounced “chee-nee”), as the tiles are known locally, adorned public spaces and important buildings in Istanbul, including the court’s main residence, Topkapi Palace. Iznik ceramics spread far and wide, even piquing the interest of Genoese and Venetian merchants. This golden era lasted for about 100 years. The decline of the Ottoman Empire meant a loss of protection for the craft, which had all but disappeared by the late 17th century. For the next several hundred years, original Iznik pieces appeared solely in art brokerages and museums worldwide (including the Louvre and the Smithsonian).
A painstaking process
A short ferry-and-minibus ride away from Istanbul, tiny Iznik on the shores of Lake Iznik presents a markedly different pace from that of Turkey’s largest city. Here, fueled by the personal interest of Dr. Işıl Akbaygil, an economics professor, the Iznik Foundation kick-started the revival of this traditional art form. It took the foundation three years to resurrect the long-forgotten ceramic-making process. The foundation still uses laborious 16th-century techniques (the only change was replacing the brick-and-wood kilns with electric counterparts), and it takes about 70 days to make each tile. The spacious Iznik Foundation garden villa, located outside the Roman walls that still partially encircle the town, offers a glimpse of how these stunning tiles are crafted.
The next step is the most intricate. The traditional geometric and floral motifs (the latter featuring tulips, roses, and carnations) are drawn on sketching paper, perforated with a needle, and transferred onto the biscuit using charcoal dust. The tiny traces of charcoal are then carefully contoured with a black dye and the designs are painted with natural metal oxide colors. Copper oxide produces a rich cobalt blue, and iron oxide turns into the distinctive, deep Iznik red.
A modern history you can hold
For Iznik aficionados, it’s not enough to simply restore this traditional art; they are also ushering it into the modern age by introducing contemporary designs and collaborating with international brands like Hermès and illustrious institutions like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Both the Iznik Foundation and Anikya have showrooms in Istanbul where travelers can browse for authentic souvenirs, handcrafted in Iznik using those centuries’ old techniques. But perhaps the most enriching experience for a tile-loving traveler awaits at Iznik Classics.
Holding a weighty, silken quartz tile in your hands can be life changing. Like the fire that births the tiles, the experience can spark an unexpected enthusiasm for the lost and revived art of Iznik. As Eğinci says, “When some customers learn the difference between the real Iznik tiles and the ones you can buy on the street, they cry.”
>>Next: This French Crystal Maker Will Change the Way You Look at Wineglasses