Shells could be regarded as a symbol of longevity since they survive for millions of years as fossils. At the same time certain mollusc shells, principally the pearl oyster but also many others species are the source of pearls and mother of pearl, the iridescent inner layer below the horny exterior. The large shells of warm seas produce the thickest layers of mother of pearl. Its use in the decorative arts is thought to have originated in the lands of the Near East, since the earliest known examples of mother of pearl decoration have been discovered in Sumerian tombs. The use of mother of pearl was also widespread in China, India and Thailand, and is thought to have passed from there to the Turks of Central Asia, who carried the art into Anatolia.
This delicate substance was particularly favoured as an inlay material on wood, which is why so few early examples have survived. But from Marco Polo and Byzantine envoys to the Turkish lands we learn that the Turks were skilled in the art of working mother of pearl and in making items decorated with mother of pearl.
The earliest example of Ottoman period mother of pearl inlay are the doors of the Mosque of Beyazit II in Edirne. Over the centuries mother of pearl was used to embellish a wide variety of objects, from Koran cases to the canopied pavilions of royal barges, from janissary sword hilts to calligraphers' writing sets, and from turban stands to the wooden pattens of grand ladies. According to Hocazade Saadeddin in his account of the funeral of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (1451-1481), the coffin was made of solid mother of pearl, although presumably this means that it was veneered. A mother of pearl workshop was set up in Topkapi Palace in the 15th century, and the art taught to apprentices.
Perhaps because working mother of pearl is an art requiring careful measuring and a sense of scale to show the material to best effect, a disproportionate number of the famous architects educated at the Ottoman palace were also mother of pearl craftsmen. The 16th and 17th centuries were a time when objects of personal use and domestic furnishings decorated with mother of pearl were the height of fashion in Istanbul. It continued to be used in works of architecture, exceptional examples including the mother of pearl inlay for the doors of Murad III's tomb at Haghia Sophia Mosque executed by Dalgic Ahmed Aga, and the window frames and main doors of Sultanahmet Mosque executed by the architect Mehmed Aga. The 17th century writer and traveller Evliya Celebi, writing in the reign of Murad IV, recorded that the mother of pearl craftsmen numbered 500 and had 100 shops in Istanbul, and says that their patron saint was Suayb-i Hindi.
The 19th century saw the decline of mother of pearl work, and by the end of the 19th century we find just two glowing sparks in the guttering candle of the art: Sultan Abdulhamid II and Sedefkar Vasif.
Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) was a skilled cabinetmaker, and enjoyed working in the mother of pearl workshop which he established at Yildiz Palace, producing some lovely pieces of work. Sedefkar Vasif was born in Besiktas in 1876, and studied carpentry and carving at the Naval College, from which he graduated with the rank of lieutenant at the age of 22. In 1912, at the age of 36, he retired with the rank of colonel and opened a workshop in Besiktas. The last outstanding pieces of Turkish mother of pearl inlay are the doors which he made for the Apartment of the Holy Mantle at Topkapi Palace. In 1936 a mother of pearl workshop was established at the Academy of Fine Arts and Vasif Sedef (who had taken the surname Sedef, meaning mother of pearl) was appointed as the instructor, a post which he held until his death in 1940. His only successor was Nerses Semercioglu, the last professional Turkish mother of pearl craftsman, who died in 1982 and with the rediscovery of the art in the 1950s had been able to make a living from his skill. Today there are a few self-taught craftsmen of calibre.
Apart from inlay the two other techniques used in Turkish mother of pearl work are
veneer and macunlama, the latter a process by which pieces of mother of pearl are pressed
into a soft paste, giving the effect of inlay. Where the style, motifs and applications of
the work are concerned, mother of pearl work is divided into four different categories:
Istanbul work, Damascus work, Vienna work and Jerusalem work.
Damascus work, which made its appearance in that city during the Ottoman era, also makes use of inlay. Here only one side of the thick white mother of pearl known in Turkish as tas sedef, which comes from the pearl oyster, is smoothed and polished, the rough underside of the shaped pieces being laid into the wood. Wire stringing 1 mm square in section made from an alloy of lead and tin is hammered into place around the mother of pearl.
Vienna work is the use of mother of pearl arranged irregularly in conjunction with boulle marquetry. This work, using the iridescent green or rose red mother of pearl known as arusek, was mainly applied to tables, couches, cupboards, sideboards and other furniture.
Jerusalem work is the art of carving mother of pearl into two-dimensional models of mosques and other figurative motifs, or designs of floral and animal motifs. Its craftsmen do not use inlay to embellish furniture or artefacts.