Prizren has been a craft center for centuries, since it stood right at the junction of Ottoman trade routes spanning from East to West and North to South. Filigree, the art of bending and twisting threads of silver or gold into intricate designs, is one of Prizren's most time-honored traditions. It's sort of like metallic lace-making. You look at a piece and think, where does it start and end? How does it stay together? What the heck is actually going on here? The flower on the right was purchased at a shop down the street from Hotel Tharanda (it says "Filigran" like all the rest, but look out for the magnificent silver traditional house displayed in the window) from a warm, welcoming man named Faik. He told me that Madeleine Albright once purchased a brooch there and I pinned it on with a bit of swagger. "Would you like to see the workshop?" he asked. Of course! The flower on the left was a gift - made right before our eyes.
There's something so coy about jewelry stores. How their displays disappear
from view after closing, how you have to bend your body in half to look at the pieces down far below your nose, the sterility of it all. But the work that goes into making all of those delicate little pieces involves flames, chemical reactions, soldering, tools. It's metal work - an art and a science. To Faik, it is something even more. "For young men, it is like flying!" After 30 years, he has since touched down, but still gets giddy talking about it. On the walk over to the workshop from the store, he explained that his own sons are not
interested in filigree "but there is no pressure." Many other young people are, he assured, but lack of work space allows them to have only one apprentice at a time. "This is a problem." It's amazing to think that this traditional artform is in danger of dying out not because of a lack of interest, but a lack of financial support. That just seems like the easier thing to remedy.. but, of course, funding is never easy.
There are shops all around Prizren selling "filigran," as it is called in Albanian - but not all of it is made in town. "A lot of it is from Malaysia," Faik explained with no trace of bitterness or sign that this appalled him. There was a bit of face scrunching and shaking of his head when he said that they do not use the 95% percent silver 5% copper mix that should be required, but then he quickly added, "but it is very, very beautiful." Part of me thinks that he recognized the existence of the other shops (even if they are inauthentic) as a continued presence of filigree in Prizren. Which is important. Also, that these are far from the greatest changes (or indignities) he's seen over the course of his life in filigree, in Prizren, in Kosovo.
When Faik first began to work here it was a big filigree factory in the former Yugoslavia. Silver and gold came in from Serbia and was fashioned into jewelry, cigarette boxes, chalices, model ships, etc by over 100 artisans. They had the whole building, then, a combined workshop and school dedicated to filigree. Since privatization, they can only afford to rent a few rooms. Faik pointed around the room and described what a usual day in the workshop is like, 10 workers (men and women) sitting around the table. "Music, coffee," he pointed at a stereo and some saucers and smiled broadly. He could clearly picture the scene in his mind as he was describing it, the family of workers immersed in this unique world of meditative toiling, of blowtorches and paintbrushes doused in borax. Scorching and bending and pounding and sand-papering the preciousness right out of precious metal... only to make it more so.
Bashkim is the head designer and was working after-hours when we arrived. They have a deadline on Monday, complex and beautiful candle holders for the Orthodox church in town. The silver cage like pieces will be cupped around marble candle holders. Even the chains that it will all hang from are being fitted with small filigree balls and crosses - everything with a specific meaning, the number of crosses, the order of patterns and such. Bashkim flipped through a folder thick with papers on which he'd drawn the designs for every individual piece. Lined paper, photographs, typed instructions, carbon paper, it all made sense to this creative mad scientist. Faik, an engineer, works more exclusively with the chemical processes, elemental mixtures, readying of materials. He's also the manager of the shop and the head salesman. These two had clearly been working together for decades, exhibiting the funny camaraderie of unlikely lifemates.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, and I'm sorry that I'm not going more into specifics here, filigree entails working with threads of silver. It is absolutely incredible to watch this being done. Faik assured us that the workers usually wear protective coveralls and gloves, but looking at Bashkim's fingers and the way he ran his shirt under a faucet after a drop of chemical splashed on (he only noticed at all because Faik gasped and pointed), I would assume he's a little more casual about all that. We watched as he took a coffee stirrer like piece of metal and a pair of tweezers and began to fold it into 11 equal parts. Somehow, that became an outline of a flower whose petals were then filled with spiraled clusters of even thinner silver thread. To make it all stick together, fairy dust (made of silver and copper) was sprinkled on and then the whole thing was soldered together with this incredible torch contraption.
Check this out (Faik can be heard explaining the basic idea in the background). Gas was turned on, he clicked a lighter to ignite the end and then used a tube attached to regulate the power and direction of the flame with his breath. This happened over and over as a new element was added to the design. After each soldering, before the piece had yet lost its bright red heat, Bashkim would start working away on it again. His fingers completely heat insensitive (though he may have tried to prove this point a little too confidently, wincing a little at a few touches). Faik joked that Bashkim's father is a baker - so it's a family of burn calloused hands.
Just a week ago, before we left Prizren, we'd gone over to the great Ethnographic Museum, which was staging a week long Crafts Festival. We had arrived on silverworking day and this woman was clearly excited to be interviewed by the evening news. I wonder if Faik had watched the coverage over dinner and thought, "Why aren't we on the news?" But probably not - that's not his style. He was probably just happy to see filigree on tv. Plus, he's busyreadying himself for a trip to Ankara, Turkey to participate in a big craft convention, selling pieces in the store and educating visitors with visits to his workshop. He wants to preserve this tradition and continue to make his art - along with Bashkim and the rest of his tight-knit group. He told Merlin and I that if we were to come live in Kosovo for two years, we could get pretty good at it. They'd just need a bigger table to fit us in. Here's hoping that happens soon. I can only be optimistic, wearing a brooch made out of silver linings.