When last we saw our heroes, they were lost in the middle of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, having sworn to Buy Nothing! and yet surrounded on every side by rabid carpet salesmen.
But before we can reveal the exciting conclusion to this mad adventure, we must first take a trip back in time to something that happened before our brave adventurers even left the United States.
Because I am easily amused, Dustin often sends me photos or articles that he thinks will make me smile, laugh, or say “hmm.” I get lots of great cat videos, comic strips, bouncing goats, and that one picture of the dog stuck in the hedge.
But one day, he sent me this series of pictures, with the following captions also attached.
I, also, had not realized how badly I needed a tiny city on my figure until I saw these rings. Stunning.
So I admired the photo, passed it on to a few friends, and then let it slip out of my mind for awhile.
Back to Turkey. With a name like Sevan Bıçakçı, is anyone surprised to find out he’s based in Istanbul? And with a husband as clever and awesome as mine, is anyone surprised to find out that he found out where the gallery is and planned a visit?
The moment we walked through the very nondescript door located on a tiny street in the old heart of Istanbul, I realized I was out of my league. Two formally dressed gallery assistants waited to greet us. Less than a dozen glass-fronted niches each displayed carefully curated, mind-boggling treasures. Dustin hadn’t told me what we’d find through the door, but the moment I looked into the first display window, I recognized the style.
“It’s like those rings you showed me! With the tiny cities inside!”
“It is those rings I showed you,” he replied.
The gallery assistant wanted to know what we were interested in. “Just looking! Haha, we can’t afford this stuff. Oh, er, is it okay to just look?” The woman’s scarf was probably worth more than my plane tickets.
Of course it was, she assured us. But she didn’t leave us alone with the treasures. She escorted us from display window to display window, explaining how the artist spent four months crafting each ring, carving out the tiny buildings, birds, and flowers from the back side of the large topaz (or other stone), then painting each by hand, in relief, from the inside out.
I do not know how the woman lured us into the back room, where I found myself seated with a cup of tea and a plate full of cookies, but there we were, being shown tray after tray of exquisite works of art which were all too fancy, too big, and too, too expensive for a peasant like me.
We spent an hour or so admiring their treasures and then ever-so-politely bowing out upon learning the price of the ring I’d finally pronounced as the most beautiful (the annual wage at my first full-time job was on par). We laughed our way back down the street, feeling pleased with ourselves for having come so close to such magnificent works of art, and promising ourselves we would some day be rich enough to buy one.
Fast forward back to this.
What could possibly have broken my resolve to slide through the bazaar without getting tangled up in the terrifying process of trying to actually buy something?
As previous paragraphs might have led you to believe, it was a ring. Perched in the middle of a large display of unremarkable rings in the narrow window of a small shop was a big, blingy ring with a tiny building carved into it.
“Do you suppose it’s one of his?” we whispered to each other. “Sure looks like it. I wonder how much one of his rings would cost around here?” “Haha! If you have to offer half of what they ask, just to get close to the real value…”
We moved on in search of the antique book stalls (which we never found), but the image of the ring followed us around. Later that night, as we packed our bags in preparation to fly out the next day, Dustin said, “We should have asked. We should have just asked how much that ring cost. Even if the price was outrageous. I wish we had asked.”
We packed a bit longer, pondering this missed opportunity.
“Our plane doesn’t leave until 1:30,” I finally volunteered.
Now the silence extended as we did the math. The bazaar would open at 9:00. We would need half an hour to walk there, and half an hour to walk back. At least half an hour to find the stall again and ask about the price. An hour’s ride to the airport, to be there at least two hours early.
We could do it.
And so the next morning, we found ourselves back at the stall of Dogan, my friend up there sporting the beard. I started by trying to stroll by casually, just another disinterested tourist. Not a tourist who had come back early specifically to look at a ring. Blasé. Bored. Unimpressed.
I was so successful that Dogan didn’t even come out of the stall to heckle us. We had to stick our heads inside and heckle him.
“This one is very beautiful,” he said, unlocking the back of the cabinet to pull out the ring. “Very unusual, very special.” (I see what you’re doing there, Dogan.)
With his permission to touch the ring (one asks permission to touch something that might cost as much as the down payment on a house), I put it on my finger and had to laugh. It was much bigger and heavier than even the big, heavy rings I had tried on at the gallery. Clearly made for a person with a bigger hand, bigger presence, and bigger pocket book than I.
But it was SO pretty.
Even if it was ridiculous, we had to ask. We had come all the way back just to ask.
“Soooo…” Casual. Nonchalant. Not really interested in buying, just curious. “How much does a ring like this cost?”
“Well…” Dogan starts. “You have to understand that this ring is very special, very unusual. And this is gold,” he said, showing me the inner lining of the ring. “And these are diamonds, real diamonds. See how many there are?”
Yeah yeah, I’m thinking. Get on with it. How many thousands of dollars do you want for this ring??
“This ring,” Dogan finally announces, “costs <censored>.”
My jaw dropped. I immediately closed it, and then hoped he’d interpreted my surprise as sticker shock. It was sticker shock, but the opposite-of-usual sort. The price he’d just named was not chump change, but it was a mere fraction of what I’d been expecting.
“It’s real gold!” Dogan reminded us, in the face of my surprise. “Real diamonds!” To him, these seemed to be bigger selling points than the astonishing building carved into the ring.
We thanked Dogan and told him we’d need to think about it. We hadn’t actually planned to think about it, so now we had a real conundrum. We put our heads together like a couple of cartoon bandits planning a heist.
“For that price, it can’t be real, can it?”
“Does it matter? It’s beautiful.”
“Can we afford <the price Dogan named>?”
“Wrong question. The question is, can we afford the final price?”
“What do you think we could talk him down to? The number already seems so low.”
“Well, what are we willing to spend on it?”
“If it’s real, we can afford his asking price! But what if it isn’t real?”
“If it isn’t real, it’s a pretty freaking amazing fake. I think it would still be worth it.”
“Particularly if those really are real diamonds.” We grin at the imitation of Dogan’s enthusiasm for the diamonds.
“It doesn’t have a maker’s mark. All the ones at the gallery had maker’s marks.”
“Maybe it was a really early piece?”
“Maybe it’s a fake.”
“But still an amazing piece of art.”
“It’s way too big to actually wear.”
“But it’s art!”
We went around like this for maybe ten minutes. The bargain of a lifetime, maybe, but think of how many dinners out I could have for that money!
And so I found myself having tea with Dogan as we rolled up our sleeves and got on with the business of haggling. Dustin said no to tea, but I read somewhere that it is the correct thing to do while negotiating over quality goods in Istanbul.
I sipped my tea (it was dreadfully strong), and we discussed the price of the ring. Such a high price! we said. Gold! he said. It’s the wrong size! we said. We can resize it! he said. I didn’t mean to spend this much money! I said. I’m just not sure! I said. It’s really nice, but…! I said.
He lowered the price for us three times before we settled. It was more than we’d hoped to spend, but at least he hadn’t managed to talk us into paying more than his original asking price, which is about what I expect of my haggling skills.
(Actually, at one point Dogan’s associate arrived, just in time to weigh in on the bargaining process. I fully expected him to say, “Dogan, you dolt! You forgot a zero when you told them the price! Deal canceled!”)
We waited for a very anxious half hour while they inserted a sizing ring that would make it possible for me to wear it. “Fifteen minutes!” they had said, when we told them of our impending flight. “Ten!”
(Pro Tip: Don’t try to bargain over how long something will take at the Grand Bazaar. You will not win.)
And thusly did the treasure become mine. Have I made you wait long enough for pictures?
I spent the rest of our trip with The Treasure (as it came to be referred to) tucked into a zippered inside pocket of the backpack I always wore, and found myself slipping my hand into the pocket often to make sure it was still there.
When we returned to the United States, I took the ring to several different jewelers to try and assess the authenticity, at least, of the claims that the ring was gold and diamonds. It turns out you can’t identify gold by sight, without chemical analysis, but all the jewelers I talked to agreed that the coppery color of the parts which were supposedly gold (the ring itself is silver – a point that seems obvious in retrospect, but which Dogan certainly failed to mention at the time) was very strange, and they would be surprised if it was gold. But they all agreed the diamonds are, in fact, diamonds. Rose cut, kind of a smoky color, and well set.
All of which is nice, but doesn’t actually tell me if the ring might be a real Sevan Bıçakçı ring. We tried to contact the gallery. Apparently they don’t use email addresses, but we did find a rarely-used Twitter feed that we sent a note to. Nothing yet.
So what do you think, internet? Have I found a legitimate treasure, or a really impressive (and still treasure-to-me) fake?