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Restoring a Great Georgian Tradition

In the Winter edition of ONE, photojournalist Molly Corso explores how an ancient art is getting a new life in Georgia.

In the Winter edition of ONE, photojournalist Molly Corso explores how an ancient art is getting a new life in Georgia. She explains her own experience with this art below.

When I first came to Georgia, everyone wore black.

In 2001, in Tbilisi, in the winter, when the skies were gray and the electricity was usually off, life was a monochrome of black figures moving in a mass of grayness. But every once in a while, usually pinned to the jacket of a woman of a certain age, there would be a stab of red and a cool pool of blues and greens caught up in a delicate swirl of silver.

The deep, rich colors evoked a sense of distant, exotic places — like India or the Middle East — some place far from the drabness of post-Soviet anything, some place where the spices were more vibrant than any painter’s palate.

In short, someplace very different than Georgia in the waning days of the Shevardnadze government.

The small brushes of brilliant hues that broke through the black were actually quintessentially Georgian, however — a form of ornament-making the Georgian artisans perfected centuries ago.

But back then enamel jewelry — like so many of Georgia’s ancient arts — was not popular. The extreme poverty that blanketed the country at the time forced valuable metals to the forefront; a good gift was anything with a smidgen of gold, not some ornamental throwback to Georgia’s past.

Those who were actively working to rekindle, revive, restore Georgia’s great artistic traditions were a minority in a country where the majority were just focused on getting by.

So, as it was with so many things of that time, it fell to the Georgian Orthodox Church to task artists, like Davit Kakabadze, to relearn the art of enamel — and to restore it to its original purpose, which was to give an image to the haunting history and traditions of the Church.

And now slowly, over the past ten years or so, enamel jewelry and enamel icons have been making a measured comeback. Today, they are everywhere, for sale for as little as a few dollars in downtown shops or for thousands in galleries and gala charity auctions.

The intricate designs can be traditional swirls of color or modern takes; shops sell them in all shapes and styles, even pendants made up to look like sunflowers or popular cartoon characters.

They are still as breathtaking as when I first noticed them — rich, vibrant colors caught up in a pattern of swirls or a delicate mosaic. Women wear them in oversized rings, necklaces, brooches and beautiful little crosses.

The bright bits of enamel are now known to be a pleasing, unique gift for birthdays or baptisms, according to Yulia Abranova at the Chaldean Church.

They are also — at the Chaldean Church and at Caritas Georgia — known to be a deceptively powerful way to help troubled youth inch out of poverty.

Five days a week, teenage boys and girls hunch over tiny bits of silver, making beautiful jewelry using the method and skills their ancestors developed thousands of years ago.

They design icons, pendants and rings; select colors and patterns; and spend hours painstakingly honing their craft — developing a skill they can use to earn a living long after they leave.

The art form they are learning, not long ago dismissed as a simple ornament that was less valuable than Russian or Armenian gold, is now appreciated as a priceless part of Georgian culture and folk art. And, a valuable commodity in the growing souvenir trade.

I received my first piece of Georgian enamel jewelry several years ago — a beautiful blue, green and gold cross that was technically a gift for my infant daughter on her baptism day. An American friend gave it to her, and when my husband saw it, he was shocked — stunned, really — that a foreigner had actually paid money for something Georgians thought so little of.

My reaction to it must have struck a chord: he gave me a piece of enamel jewelry that year on my birthday. The tiny splashes of bright colors lying in my jewelry box, shining against the dark velvet, never cease to captivate my daughter.

She loves to take them out, feel the cool surface with her fingers, run a nail around the swirling patterns.

Read more and see more pictures in “Crafting a Future” in the Winter edition of ONE.

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