My name is Ikram Rafikov. I was born in Shymkent in 1971.
My father was an artist. He had worked for 30 years at the drama theatre as a scene painter, and another 30 years at the City Art Foundation. Different artists would often visit our house, so I was growing up in a very creative environment.
My father had a profound influence on me. When I was a high school student, he would ask me who I wanted to become when I grow up. I had different answers back then: a photographer, a doctor, then something else… But after I finished the school, my father offered to introduce me to his friend from the Art Foundation who was engaged in jewellery making, so that I could learn this craft too. So, Abdulla Nauruzbayev, my father’s friend, became my teacher. While jewellery making was his hobby, he was an artist in the broad sense of the term; at the Foundation they would do mosaics, wood carvings, punchwork: in general, whatever was needed to decorate the city.
Mister Nauruzbayev introduced me to various jewellery-making techniques and showed me his books. I really enjoyed learning and spent a lot of time at the Foundation. I would sit at one of the art rooms there and do brazing and other small tasks. Gradually, I became keen on jewellery art, and that was the impetus for me to choose my future profession.
For about 10 years I had worked as a propman at the Shanin drama theatre. We staged many different plays: Kyz Zhibek*, Aiman-Sholpan*, and others. The theatre’s chief artist knew that I was a jewellery maker, so he always tried to give me a good work. So, instead of making props like plates, spoons, or chairs, I was asked to create jewellery pieces or armour: swords, helmets, etc.
*Kyz Zhibek and Aiman-Sholpan are iconic Kazakh epic poems
At first, we mainly worked with copper; we would make copper and brass bracelets that were popular back then. We even tried making things from aluminium. We also worked a lot with cupronickel, a light-coloured alloy very similar to silver. Later, we started using stones and wood as well. Now I mainly use silver.
In general, if you have ideas and you can make things, then the materials do not matter that much. Of course, each metal has its own nuances, but all that can be mastered. What really matters in the profession of a jewellery artist is the ability to come up with an idea, to catch that idea and to try to at least sketch it on a paper, then roughly imagine how you are going to implement it. And only then you choose the material. The rest is merely technical work.
Each master has their favourite techniques and styles. Some enjoy working with enamel and create beautiful colourful pieces which are highly demanded these days. Enamel is like painting on silver. However, traditional Kazakh jewellery used to be more monumental and monochrome: light silver on a blackened background — more like graphics or grisaille.
I often hear or read that some gemstones have the power to bring good luck and bestow health to their owners. Or, that stones should be chosen based on your zodiac sign. I do not believe in such things, they all seem like purely advertising tricks to me. In my opinion, if you like the stone, then that stone is yours, regardless of the zodiac. What I do believe in is that every piece of jewellery projects the energy and the mood that the master had put into it during the work. That is, you put your soul into the product, and if someone likes this particular ring or this particular necklace, perhaps this is because you are on the same wavelength with this person.
When beginners reach out to me, I am always willing to support them and try to help them with advice. If one really has a true desire, the profession of a jewellery maker can be mastered. But if the person wants to quickly learn something in two or three months and start earning big money right away, then this job is not for them. It takes dedication and determination. I can teach an aspiring jewellery maker but it might take a year, or two, or three.
When I just started, books were my first sources of inspiration: Kazakh Jewellery Art, Jewellery of Central Asia and Kazakhstan — beautiful large illustrated books published during Soviet times.
Looking through the pages with true masterpieces would fill me with enthusiasm and inspiration.
I also have this book, The Ancient Gold of Kazakhstan, which is about the Golden Man. When his remains were first uncovered, there were not just the clothing and armour but other precious artefacts: belts, a tiara, and various jewellery pieces. I really enjoyed studying the pictures.
Our regional ethnography museum gave me a lot too: it was fascinating to look at the beautiful jewellery pieces from eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Later, when I got seriously engaged in jewellery making, thanks to the Union of Artisans and its chairman Aizhan Bekkulova, I got to travel to other cities and countries. There is the main nation-wide professional competition in craft, held annually; it is called Sheber. Every year, winners of Sheber visit a new country. I became a winner in 2013. That year we all travelled to Nepal. Jewellery making, wood carving, and other types of craft and art are very well developed in Nepal. There, we met local artisans, visited their workshops and homes, went to the exhibition of crafts of Eastern Asia. We talked a lot, local masters showed us their works, and we showed them ours.
I also participated in the craft festival in Istanbul that engaged artisans from 70 countries of the world. It was an amazing experience!
Last year, our group of eight jewellery makers and two tailoresses, together with Aizhan Bekkulova, visited Washington DC. Invited by the Smithsonian Museum, we exhibited Kazakh jewellery and felt clothing. We had been preparing for the show for almost a year, and in my opinion, we did quite well in demonstrating our national art.
Such trips, as well as participation in contests and festivals are extremely useful for any artisan as they help to broaden one’s horizon. When masters step out of their workshops and discover the world, when they see other artisans at work, their imagination expands, and new ideas appear.
It is such a big boost of pure energy and inspiration!
Besides, exhibitions and festivals give us a chance to talk to people who would potentially wear our products. After all, we, jewellers, create things that are not hung on the wall but worn by people. Therefore, from just talking to people, we learn about their preferences and note many important things for ourselves.
I used to create jewellery based on what I had seen in the museums. Later, as my skills advanced, I learned to make identical copies of the museum exhibits, or create things inspired by Kazakh or, for instance, Turkmen national jewellery. Now, I can create something of my own, unique and modern. It is the same in any type of craft: you can make classics, or something contemporary but still based on traditions, or you can design something original where you put your thoughts the way you want it.
A few years ago in Almaty, I went to a lecture by Martina Dempf, a jewellery designer from Germany. The lecture was on current trends in jewellery art. She talked about the trend toward simplification and minimalism that was present in Western countries. Not only the shape of jewellery is changing but the materials too; sometimes masters can even make jewellery from paper.
The lecturer also talked about the jewellery art of Asia and Africa and lamented that many nations are losing their jewellery traditions. The same problem is present in our country too: it is not common to wear national jewellery in a daily life. For some reason, there is a belief that if you wear national-style earrings, you have to wear a national dress with them, and that happens once in a year: during certain holidays like Nauryz or a wedding, and that’s it. To me, it is a too conservative approach. So I always tell my clients, ‘why don’t you try mixing up national-style earrings with your casual or formal clothes?’ Why not?
Each region of Kazakhstan has its own jewellery style. For instance, aesthetics of North Kazakhstan is closer to that of Russia and Tatarstan: some of the ornaments and techniques have something in common. Jewellery style of East Kazakhstan is influenced by the Altay and China. The jewellery of the South is influenced by Uzbek style, especially in terms of colours. And there’s the West Kazakhstan style. For the past few years I have been working mainly in that direction.
One of the differentiating features of West Kazakhstan’s jewellery art is silver granulation, a technique whereby a surface is covered in spherules or granules. There are two types of granulation. First is genuine granulation, meaning that spherules are used to create patterns. And there is mock granulation which is made by stamping or hammering hemispherules.
These days, many masters prefer to work with mock granulation for two reasons: it’s easier, and such products are more demanded on the market as the technique obviously affects the price and the time you spend on making each product.
I only work with genuine granulation. The reason is that I just want somebody to use the genuine technique, otherwise it could be lost.
In fact, many secrets are already lost. Sometimes you look at the jewellery pieces made by our craftsmen 100, even 200 years ago, from granules so small you cannot understand how could they possibly braze them? Today, with the Internet and all the modern equipment at hand, we still cannot recreate those ancient works. We don’t even know how they were made; these secrets are lost forever.
I really hope that what I am doing now and what I am working on, would be my contribution to the revival of ancient techniques and traditions.