Traditional for the Orient and praised by poets, jeweler’s art is not that on the verge of extinction, but true masters of this craft can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Thus happens because not everyone can master the craft of zergher – apart from many-years experience and painstaking work it requires great assiduity and patience, and also serious knowledge of history and culture, according to Ikramzhan Rafikov.
We are having our conversation in the jeweler’s workshop – a small cool room equipped with unusual tools and decorated with breathtakingly beautiful jewelry in the oriental style. We are speaking about the magic of gems and silver, intricacies of the craftsmanship, and contemplating on universal human values.
Interviewer: Ikramzhan, how did you make up your mind to become zergher?
Ikramzhan Rafikov: My father was an application artist; he worked as decorator in the legitimate theatre, so I spent all my childhood behind the curtain. I remember that I liked how the stage looked at night most of all – it is particularly magic at this time of day. And it was just father who introduced the jeweler’s art to me: he often told me stories about our ancestors engaged in this ancient art of making fine pieces from precious stones and metals, which possess magic powers. And so I dreamt about beginning to practice my grandfathers’ job. Right after school I visited the Foundation of Artists, the workshop of the celebrated artist and jeweler Abdulla Nauryzbaev, and was an apprentice to him seven days a week for several straight years, mastering this occupation. And only after I’d grasped all the twists and turns, I began working independently. What I am doing now is called the filigree - shortened from the earlier use of filigreen which derives from Latin "filum" meaning thread and "granum" grain, in the sense of small bead, which you join and as a result get the intricate décor in rings, seal rings, bracelets, and earrings.
I: So, what influenced your choice more – love for the craft itself or magic of metal and gems?
IR: Both of them, but I have special attitude towards silver, which I prefer working with. It attracts me just like semi-precious stones do. Do you know that there are only five precious stones? These are diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire, and topaz, and all the rest stones are semi-precious. And among them there are my favourites, which are traditional for the Orient – cornelian and turquoise. I am interested in the history of eastern countries, and in my jewelry I combine, make play, and stylize various pictures, details and patterns known from the past.
I: In the Orient the jewelry had mainly served as amulets before. What about today?
IR: But before it had been also luxury goods and had showed a person’s social position. Some brides from wealthy families were lifted up and carried during the wedding, because under the burden of so much jewelry they couldn’t make a single move. And by this they demonstrated the presence of the girl’s many rich relatives before the bridegroom and his family. Now, these are just jewelry, and also the memory of national history and origins, of course.
I: So, through your art you are trying to turn us to the roots of Kazakhstan and Middle Asia history.
IR: Unfortunately, the ancient culture of this craft is fading away. And we are trying to keep it this or that way. Look at those young people – many of them don’t ever want to read, learn, or do anything, and even if they do want to be trained, then very fast and without any serious efforts. It’s much easier for them to become distributors, promoters, or merchandisers than applied arts, medical or pedagogic specialists. Everything is eurostyle-oriented: renovation, design, food. But Europeans themselves try to preserve the traditions of their culture. And we should save our distinctiveness and remember our origins, too. And who is going to replace today’s masters? I’ve been in jewelry business for 22 years, and I still don’t see myself as a great master, I learn each and every day. Will young specialists have patience and assiduity enough to study a jeweler’s craftsmanship?
I: Doesn’t it seem to you that people of art are defended from the social realm and drab existence by their own world and area of interests?
IR: I guess, each one should find something peculiar and inspiring in his occupation. Even the bread making for a baker must be a creative process, and cleaners may remove rubbish from the streets in an inspiring manner – because actually, they undertake the great mission – they make the city clean!
I: How do you view the opinion that each stone has its own meaning?
IR: People sometimes attach too much meaning to stones. You can hear such crap at exhibitions from time to time! This or that stone may save you or cure you from every calamity or disease in the world! – they say. As for me, I think that you shouldn’t give people any vain hope, particularly those who grasp at any possible information about their recover as at a last straw. I see only esthetics, beauty, and joint of times in a stone. The same thing is regarding zodiacal signs. You shouldn’t pin your faith on every conventionality concocted by someone. I have an opinion, shared by other artists, that if some stone took fancy of a person, it means that this stone is his/hers.
I: Have you ever had such an order, which you still remember and which impressed you the most?
IR: Once a young man asked me to make a seal ring for him that no one else had. I offered him a large and unusual stone as décor. It is called “bull’s eye”. This stone surprised him by its ability to change colours, although at first sight it seems a bit dim. But situations when people should remember their origins I take closer to heart. For example, a woman whose daughter studies in US often orders national style jewelry for her, in order for this young girl to never forget her motherland, family, and friends. I particularly respect clients of this kind.
I: Does it mean that these artworks are also patriotic ones?
IR: It is patriotic for us, it is exotic for foreigners, and for those who likes the history of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan, jewelry is not only esthetic, but informative, too. As for me personally, I would like my jewelry to be liked by people, to treasure history and legends and also the intricate connection with our cultural heritage.
So gorgeous was this string of beads;
Of dark cloudy agate,
A profanus could take these beads
For round eyes of blind and handsome
Youths of Arata, loved by death,
Threaded in the twisted string,
They decorated her neck ominously,
But balls of Badakhshan turquoise
In her silver earrings forgave the one,
Which shouldn’t have been blamed...
Slim wrists (are her hands tender?)
Were clad in cornelian bracelets.
The Clay Book by Olzhas Suleimenov