Sunday 23 April 2017 News Updated at 08:04 AM IST
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In Turkey, seeking onyx curios - Deccan Herald
In Turkey, seeking onyx curios
Ashis Dutta, April 9, 2017
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Smooth & shiny: An onyx stone taking shape. Photo by author
Michelangelo had once said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it.” And it’s not Michelangelo alone, but sculptors across centuries and the seven seas perceive that exquisite object hidden inside a dull, drab slab of stone. For a layman like me, the stack piled up in a corner of the factory looked just that way - dull and drab. Who would know what treasure can be drawn out from them?

"They are onyx stones,” said Mustafa, a burly man in a loose pair of jeans and a check-shirt with sleeves rolled up the elbow, giving an air of being a hands-on supervisor. I was in a small factory in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, famous for producing striking onyx artefacts. He had to scream to be heard above the grating noise from the saw blades slicing the stones.

The cutting stopped and Mustafa’s voice softened. He picked up a rectangularly cut slab, the size of a regular book, and held it up against a glowing light bulb. I didn’t find anything unusual in it. He smiled and then picked up another slab and did the same against the bulb. "It’s translucent,” I exclaimed. His grin broadened. "Yes,” he said, "onyx stones are translucent. The first one was just an ordinary stone, not onyx.”

He led me to another section of the factory and introduced me to Kemal who was leaning against a lathe machine. "Kemal is a master finisher,” said Mustafa, then added, "he makes wonderful shapes out of onyx stones.” Picking up the cue, Kemal fitted a block of onyx, a cuboid about six inches long and two inches at the sections, to the lathe, and got on the job.

With deft handling, Kemal’s onyx was taking the shape of a smooth egg. Each time he stopped the spin of the lathe to examine the progress and readjust the stone, I saw the green bands in the stone sprinting like eccentric streams of green water running parallel, swimming around the stone, becoming clearer and clearer. As if they were hiding inside the stone and at the caress of Kemal’s hand, decided to bare their essence. I was witnessing Michelangelo’s dictum first hand.

"A stone may pass through several finishing processes to get the desired shape,” said Mustafa, as we left Kemal’s station and moved on. "Most of the finishers can do the basic jobs, but some are more deft, experienced in some special operations, like those needed to get fine statues and intricate objects of art.” We had come to the end of the finishing section. We entered a side room where onyx vases of different colours were lined up on a rack.

"Onyx comes in various colours, depending on the minerals it contains,” said Mustafa. Dark red, brown, honey, white, light and dark green are more common. From another shelf, he picked up two vases of identical colour, shape and handed them to me. "Touch and feel them,” he said. "This one is rough,” I said, feeling one of them. "Yes,” he said, "this is yet to be polished, while this one is already polished.”

Taking back the two vases, he asked me to follow him to the polishing station. Now, who would have known that polishing is so complicated. While five people were working there, each one doing something completely different from the other, they all were essentially engaged in polishing. "So, polishing is not merely polishing?” I asked. Mustafa grinned.

"There are many factors involved,” he said. "If there are scratches, we have to know how deep or shallow are those scratches. We have to buff them accordingly, choosing the right buffing material and process before polishing. Is it wet or dry? Is it a flat surface, or curved?”

We then find ourselves in a low-ceilinged hall where seemingly younger people were working. "Demand for skilled people is very high in our business,” Mustafa said, and pointing to the youngsters added, "and we take young apprentices and groom them.” "Is it easy to get young people into these jobs?” I asked. Mustafa slowly shook his head. "No, not easy. Most youngsters like to work on computers and all, and not soil their hands. But we are trying.”

"Where do you sell your products,” I asked. "All over the world,” said Mustafa. "They are all exported in bulk. But we also have a retail centre here, and I’m now taking you there. We will offer you a very good discount which you cannot refuse.” I was dreading that moment.

When Mustafa finally shook my hand and bid goodbye, I was heavier by three packets in my hand, and lighter in the pocket. But they are good buys, nay, exquisite, I said to myself.

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