Istanbul has some of the most beautiful jewelry and fashion in the world, but figuring out how to find it can be intimidating. Luckily, there’s help out there: Catherine Salter Bayar, an American ex-pat who’s lived in Istanbul for 20 years, has a vast knowledge of Turkish fashion and hosts personal shopping excursions for tourists. Catherine joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to offer her insider secrets for shopping in one of the oldest cities in the world. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome back to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Catherine Salter Bayar, a fashion industry professional with extensive experience not only in fashion, but also in interior design, textiles and jewelry. I met her when I engaged her services as a personal shopping guide on a recent trip to Istanbul. She took me to some wonderful places and gave me a lot of behind-the-scenes scoops. She’ll let us in on her Istanbul shopping secrets today. Catherine, thanks so much for being here.
Catherine: Thank you so much for having me, Sharon. This is a pleasure to speak to you again after two days together. I really enjoyed taking you around Istanbul. It was fun.
Sharon: It was fabulous. It makes it so much more efficient, but we can talk more about that later. Tell us, you’ve had an extensive career in fashion and interior design, which has touched on accessories and jewelry. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey and how you ended up in Istanbul?
Catherine: I started out as a clothing designer. I worked for various big U.S. brands that I won’t drop the names of, but you would know them. I came to Istanbul around 1990 for the first time. Back in those days, we took design teams and traveled to Europe and shopped all the trends in the market, and I did both women’s and men’s wear. We had the pleasure of going to all these different, lovely places and seeing what those designers were doing, then going back to consult, think about the fabrics and the details, the buttons, the jewelry and the accessories that we had seen, and then we put together our collections that way. It was great, because I was trained to pick up details, to see what was good quality and what wasn’t such good quality in all the fashion capitals of the world, and then to put together your own collection and try to make your fabrics, your buttons, your jewelry, your designs, all different things. Istanbul was one of those production centers.
After we did all of this fabulous shopping and design work, we would come to a place like Istanbul. We also went to India and the Far East mostly, but we came here to put things together. It’s a huge fashion industry production center. A lot of it is behind the scenes. A lot of European fashion houses come here and do things and then slap an “assembled in the EU” label to them. It’s an amazing place for a designer here, because you can get anything made, whatever your heart desires. I loved that aspect of the city.
The other thing I loved is that it’s a fabulously beautiful city. It’s surrounded by water, and its hills, its dramatic old buildings, its ancient cultures all piled on top of each other, and there are about 16 million people. It’s modern; it’s ancient; it has this vibe that, as a designer and someone who loves history and cultures, was very hard to beat. I was lucky with the clothing design. I was able to travel to a lot of different places and have been in a couple of other big cities like this, but this is absolutely my favorite. I ended up coming back and forth quite a few times. On one of those trips, I ended up meeting my husband, who is a textile expert. So that was that. That was the decision made. Istanbul is where I needed to be. I moved here about 20 years ago.
Sharon: Wow! Well, you’re right about it being a beautiful city. I understand it’s a fashion production capital. That’s interesting, because Turkish designers are becoming—they have a long way to go, but still, it’s becoming a thing.
Catherine: Yeah, a lot of Turkish designers, what they do to be legitimate—it’s more fast fashion here, and people like that will make a lot of things here. That’s behind the scenes, but a lot of Turkish designers go to London or Paris, or they go work for some of the big houses. There are a lot of famous Turkish clothing designers that go to Europe to establish themselves and then they come home, if they can. Some of the places where we did business, some of the neighborhoods—it’s a big thing, but you have to become famous elsewhere. You have to leave home, Istanbul being home, and then come back having made your fame in a real, big fashion capital. That’s more of what you see.
Sharon: Something we talked about that I was surprised by is people asking, “You went to Turkey, but is it safe? Can you go?” What are your thoughts? What do you tell people when they ask that?
Catherine: You’ve got me chuckling. This is the first thing I hear from every visitor and anybody who’s contemplating a trip here, “But is it safe?” as if I would live in some place that—it’s not a war zone thankfully; it is a big city, so it is, of course, the first thing you hear, because it is much in the news. The media perception of this part of the world is that it is backward; it’s dangerous; there are bombs going off; and it’s not like that at all from what I’ve experienced. We’ve had several years that have been quite rocky, obviously. We’ve got wars, and the countries around us are in a lot of turmoil, and of course that affects us, because this is very much a crossroads. It is the cliché of the East and West—I hate it when people say that—but it really is. It’s the crossroads of a lot of different places, but this city also had an 8,000-year history of political turmoil, terrorism, all these things. If you go back in history, some pretty horrific events have happened here. It’s just that it’s the capital of the world.
Quite honestly, I lived in Los Angeles during the L.A. Riots, and that was interesting in Northridge Lake. I was in New York for six months right after 9/11. What that taught me was that big cities are targets, and that stuff can happen pretty much anywhere when you’re in a big city like that. I learned to be aware of what’s going on around me. I don’t take chances that are ridiculous, but I just live my life. I love this city, so the thought of leaving, I don’t know where else I’d want to live. I stay here and, frankly, I feel very safe in terms of crime and muggings and things like that, that doesn’t happen. The biggest challenge to my daily stuff is the taxi driver, the crazy driver; is he going to run someone off the road? Does he know where he’s going? Or, there are a lot of smokers around. That’s the biggest thing, living with the second-hand smoke that I think will probably get you. But Turks look out for each other; they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. If somebody is doing something and they shouldn’t be in your neighborhood, someone’s watching them. I feel very, very safe here compared to other places I’ve lived.
Sharon: Just as a visitor, you have to be careful when you’re traveling, but I felt totally safe.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s common sense. You have to use it everywhere.
Sharon: That’s it, common sense. You took me to some very interesting places for jewelry and clothing, some of which I asked you specifically to take me to and others you found through people you know and your research. For those you found through your research, how did you decide which ones to take me to and which ones to skip?
Catherine: First of all, from my years in the fashion industry and later when I did interior design, you have to notice two things. First, you have to know how to shop. Shopping is a job, as you know from two days of wandering. We were pounding the streets. It was a good workout. You have to be able to—it’s a treasure hunt. You have to look around and assess what’s out there, get to know it, talk to people, see what’s recommended. It’s visiting places. The other thing is to know who you’re shopping for. In taking you around, you were well-practiced. You had your list of, “This is what I like. This is my aesthetic. This is what I’m into, the looks that I like,” and that’s hugely helpful. That cuts time down, because I know, “O.K., my client is looking for these sorts of things. This is her aesthetic. This is her look. She’s interested in this.” You’ve done your research, too, so that makes it a much easier thing, but basically it is a treasure hunt.
Here, it’s walking the neighborhood streets. Things change quickly, too, not just in the old places like the Grand Bazaar, but in other neighborhoods. Shops will be there for six months and then gone, especially designer stores, anything that’s trend based. Maybe they’ll be there for a short time, and there are things like pop-up stores. Because you had a list of things that you had given me and the names that you suggested, I knew where to take you and what you were looking for, but then it does become the treasure hunt of, “Will we find anything in these places?” Sometimes along the way, we find a few more places, “Oh, let’s look here. Let’s look there.” It’s about the hunt. It’s getting out there and asking around and being willing to just walk in anywhere or down any alley. You never know. There are a lot of artisans that work up in old, stone stairs at the top of a 500-year-old building. It’s seeking those people out.
Sharon: That’s why it’s so great to have somebody like you. There were several places I never, ever would have found. I could have lived there 10 years and never would have known about them, so that’s what I like.
Catherine: Also, talking to the local people helps. I wouldn’t call myself fluent in Turkish, but after people see you coming back time and again—if they see you once, it’s one thing, but if they see you coming through a few times and you speak a little Turkish or another language you may have in common, then a bit of a relationship starts. They open up and say, “Oh, did you know about this place?” It’s very much an insider kind of place. They’re always happy to have tourists come through, but they know that you’re not staying. If you have a connection to this place or if you’re going to have guests and bring more people, then a whole different world opens up. You’ve become an insider; you’re one of them.
Sharon: Yes, there’s a lot of it. The value of engaging somebody like that, besides the fact that it was a lot of fun and we hit it off, was that you also see between the cracks of where to go, in a sense.
Catherine: Right, that’s all part of the treasure hunting.
Sharon: But if you’re a visitor as I was, you may only have a limited amount of time—
Catherine: Right, you wouldn’t know. You couldn’t possibly know. You could read a lot of articles. You were very prepared. For the clients that I’ve taken on my shopping tours in the last 10, 15 years, you were on the very prepared side. A lot of people come and say, “I’m not interested in shopping,” which is sometimes true, sometimes not. They say, “I’m interested in just seeing the bazaar. I’m afraid to shop at the bazaar. It’s intimidating.” But along the way, you get to know each other and talk to them because you’re spending the day together, so things come up that will trigger, “Oh, I wonder if they’re interested in this,” or “Maybe I should show them this. I’m going to show them anyway, because I think they will like it.” Part of design is, there’s a lot of psychology involved. It’s like, “What would this person like, and how do I help make their day and their time here in Istanbul really special and very interesting?”
Sharon: I’m sure it is having to read people. Talking about the Grand Bazaar, do you have a strategy? You can spend three days there easily, but what would you suggest?
Catherine: First of all, having someone like me along as a guide always helps, but there is a caveat because some guides are really just out to take you to certain places because they get a commission. They don’t really care about what you’re looking for, or they take you to some place that is beyond your budget and they’re pushy. So, guides, unfortunately, are not always something that you want to hire. You can probably get the sense if they’re interested in helping you or if they’re interested in just ripping you off.
I’ve found that understanding—back to the psychology of the place—the Grand Bazaar is all about relationships, for instance. If you go to the Grand Bazaar, there are very few places that I truly love, but there are the places that have been there a long time. The vendors, the merchants are usually older. They’re steeped in the culture. A cup of coffee or tea may lead to 40 years of friendship. For instance, if you go into a shop, you’re offered tea. You sit there and you have time to chat with the merchants if you share a language, but you also have time to look. It’s intimidating to a western visitor, perhaps because there are no prices usually marked on things. You have to ask. That leads to the bargaining, which is always frustrating if you’re not used to it, but bargaining is supposed to be a conversation. It’s about relationships. You’re sitting there; you’re talking; you’re enjoying and you’re saying, “Well, what about this? What is the story of this piece?” You engage in a conversation, which leads to a relationship, which leads to better pricing, because the merchant says, “Ah, this person actually appreciates what this is.” So, they look at you in a different light. You’re not just someone passing through that gives them money and runs out.
The Grand Bazaar is a bit of work and it’s putting yourself out there and talking to people. It’s also knowing who not to talk to, actually. In Turkish culture, if you’re walking past a store and someone talks to you and says, “Hey, come look at my store. Come look here,” that’s really rude in Turkish culture. They do things like that in the Grand Bazaar because they know, for instance, in American culture, if someone says hello to you, we’re trained to say, “Oh hi, no thanks.” We’re trained to respond. In Turkish culture, if someone speaks to you on the street, you ignore them, especially if you’re a woman; that’s really rude. Don’t speak. It can be intimidating because you think you’re expected to respond to all of these people, and you’re absolutely not. Anyone who talks to you, ignore them. Then they’ll say, “Oh, maybe she’s not unfamiliar with this.”
Sharon: That’s interesting.
Catherine: It’s a different psychology, but, again, it goes back to a relationship. You’re supposed to enjoy the merchant, enjoy the cup of tea, and spend your time. It’s a much more leisurely way of shopping, which is a little bit alien to a western visitor from the outside.
Sharon: Right, that’s interesting. I’m thinking about all the times we were offered cups of tea and I was like, “Hey, I don’t have time.”
Catherine: Right, and people get quite put off, “Oh no, not another cup of tea,” but refusing it is rude in the culture. You’re supposed to pretend to enjoy it, but even if you don’t, just say, “Oh, thank you.” You’re refusing their hospitality otherwise. Yes, they’re trying to get you to spend your time and hopefully your money, but it’s not a marketing emporium entirely; it’s also part of the culture. So relax and enjoy it, and that way, you can have several cups of free Turkish coffee. It’s sustenance to keep going, because most of the older merchants are quite interesting to talk to and they speak maybe 10 languages, self-taught, just from people like us coming in and talking to them. I find that remarkable, too.
Sharon: It is amazing. Tell us, if you had to choose three to five places for jewelry to take somebody, what are the few places that you would—
Catherine: Only five, no—I was thinking three to five neighborhoods, because everybody is quite different. But if you come here and you’re looking for jewelry, wonderful things like that, obviously we’ve been talking about the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is the world’s oldest. Since 1461, it’s had shoppers. It’s been a shopping street since Roman times. It’s where the Turks go to buy their gold, and if you have a wedding or a special event, you always buy gold. So those guys, they have to be good. There’s diamonds wholesale, there are all different things. Walking in those streets is always interesting to me because it’s outside. It’s places like Sevan B?çakç?, who is probably the most famous Turkish jewelry designer. Most of the jewelers in this country are of Armenian descent, and they’ve come from places in the east, maybe where my husband’s from, different places like that.
Sharon: Catherine, I want to stop you because a lot of people listening may have never heard of him.
Catherine: Yes, so Sevan B?çakç?, what is so fabulous about him, if you think back to Ottoman times, the sultan had jewelers employed by the thousands for the women in his harem or for himself. Men dressed like this, too. Daily, these women and men, higher-ups in the Ottoman Empire, were offered these pieces of exquisite jewelry from artisans that worked in the Bazaar or around the Bazaar. We’re talking from 1461, so for a while this was happening. Sevan B?çakç? has carried on this tradition of jewelry making. His pieces are so amazing because if you look inside a ring, through the mirror, there’s an image of the Hagia Sophia. It’s this perfect, tiny, little figure going into a little, miniature world, much like the Ottoman times. They had miniature paintings that illuminated these amazing scenes. They didn’t have photography of course, so they painted these amazing miniatures.
Sevan B?çakç? does similar exquisite, fine, miniature detailed jewelry, in rings, in necklaces, in amazing bits of craftsmanship. He’s bringing the Ottoman culture itself into the jewelry that he makes, so I would say he’s definitely a place to go and see. Of course, the prices are what the pieces are worth. They’re of amazing quality, so it’s not a purchase that everyone could make, but it’s definitely well worth seeing, and he’s just right outside the Grand Bazaar.
That would definitely be a top place, but walking around the bazaar, there are other people. For instance, there’s Tina Sezer, who is from Germany originally, a woman much like myself. She married into a Turkish family and decided to stay here, but she came in the 60s and she built a world of jewelry using one-of-a-kind stones and different things. There are no two pieces alike. Or there’s Aida Bergsen, who you had suggested to me, in a different neighborhood. She does very whimsical, interesting pieces, and she also has a studio outside the Grand Bazaar. You have individual artisans that are working in ancient tradition, but bringing modern touches to their work.
We also went to the neighborhood of Ni?anta??, which is where we saw Aida Bergsen. That neighborhood is wonderful because there’s a street that’s very—it reminds me of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles because it’s all the big designer labels and things, but tucked away, there are marvelous department stores and shops that have collections of designers and they showcase fashion and jewelry. They showcase these designers. It’s a great experience. We spent an entire day in that neighborhood wandering down streets.
Sharon: Yes, and I can see why it reminds you of Rodeo. Also too, they have the big names. I think there’s Gucci.
Sharon: But they also had some shops that just specialized in Turkish designers, so that was fabulous.
Catherine: Right, like Gizia Gate. That is only Turkish designers, jewelry and fashion, and they showcase it. Again, Turkish designers go off and become famous elsewhere, but to come back even to Istanbul and open your own shop that takes quite a bit of money. What Gizia Gate does, which is great, is showcase. You can have space within a collective. That’s happening quite a lot here, because real estate is pricey. People do things together and they’ll have a collective of work together. So, you can accessorize; you can mix and match. For shoppers, it’s really wonderful. You don’t have to run and find all these different shops. They’re in one place.
Sharon: We’ll definitely have links to your information, but also to some of the places you mentioned, because with the Turkish spelling, some of the names are harder to hear. I just want everybody to know we’ll have that information.
Catherine, this is fabulous. What else should we know if we’re shopping for jewelry in Istanbul, or shopping for accessories or clothing?
Catherine: Take your time. First of all, don’t limit your time if that’s at all possible. This is a big city and it deserves a wander and time to sit and enjoy yourself. Take it at a different pace, because we’re used to rushing around, especially in New York. If you’re living on New York time, you’re doing things quickly. Here, you just can’t be like that. This can be a very fast-paced city, but pace yourself and sit and enjoy.
Right now, we haven’t had much tourism because of some of the events that have been going on for the last several years, but that’s changed. Things are looking up, although the value of our lira has dropped considerably compared to a year ago, but that makes it a great time. Your dollar or your euro will go very, very far here, so you can upgrade your hotel; you can buy more stuff, even designer stuff. People were coming and buying designer goods here because it’s cheaper, so that’s a good thing to know. It’s a good time to be here for those reasons, but it’s just a fabulous city, no matter if it’s history or culture or shopping, whatever you’re looking for. It’s a wonderful place to visit, and it is safe and it’s delightful no matter what your focus is.
Sharon: It’s fabulous. It’s one of my favorite cities. I can’t wait to go back. Catherine, thank you so much for being here and for a fabulous time when I was there.
Catherine: You’re very welcome.
Sharon: To everyone listening, we’ll have Catherine’s contact information and some of the contact information for the places she mentioned. It’ll be in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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