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feature 31 Jul 17

Prizren’s Filigree Workers Keep Ancient Kosovo Craft Alive

A handful of artisans in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren are struggling to maintain a centuries-old tradition of handmade filigree jewelry, passing it from father to son. 

Die Morina

Holed up in a corner of his shop in southern Kosovo city of Prizren, a grey-haired man takes a small piece of silver and turns it into a finely twisted thread.

He then combines tiny metal threads and beads, using a blowpipe to give the metal different shapes. They will later become a necklace, he explains.

Nrec Gjini, 49, inherited this ancient craft from his father, who inherited it from his own father.

He never once thought of changing anything about the way he works, although times have been often hard and modern technology would have made it all a lot easier.

Right there, in his tiny workshop, in the corner, he’s happily alone with the silver.

“We work with twisted threads of silver,” says Gjini. Not everyone can master this art properly, he notes, explaining that besides artistic talent, it requires absolute precision, as the motifs and details of the silverwork are so minute.

Gjini is one of the few remaining jewelers in Prizren who still know and practise the art of filigree, a delicate lace-like kind of jewelry metalwork made with tiny beads and twisted threads. The art remains popular in Asia, especially India, but also in North Africa – but is rare in modern Europe.

It has brought a great deal of renown to Prizren over the centuries. There is no exact date for when Albanians in Kosovo started to work with silver, but historians say the art of filigree was flourishing by the 18th century.

Prizren became the main centre for jewelry makers, but there were famous artisans in Peja/Pec, Gjakova/ Djakovica and Pristina as well, where jewelers carefully passed on the secrets of the trade from father to son.

The trade did not originate in Kosovo, but Kosovo was especially famous for its artisans, ethnographer Bekim Xhemili told BIRN.

“As filigree technique was inherited over the centuries, the artisans started working with their fathers from a very young age, which made them perfectionists. This made their technique, style and motifs unique,” Xhemili added.

Once, Kosovo had its own silver mines in Trepca and Novoberda and jewelers had plenty of raw material to work with. But silver is no longer extracted in Kosovo, so the remaining artisans have to import it, barely covering their costs.

The trade is dying. Xhemili says the Kosovo state should support the few artisans still struggling to keep the tradition alive.

He notes that the craft has been included on a temporary protection list, which includes 1,543 assets of cultural heritage. It is under such protection for one year.

Memories of a golden era:

Back in the 1980s, the filigree trade flourished. There were 150 to 200 artisans in Prizren in those days.

Gjini’s family was among them. They worked hard, but they also sold a lot, especially to tourists on the Croatian coast. He remembers that many artisans from Prizren left the city and moved to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, where they found better business.

But then war raged across the Balkans in the 1990s and trade suffered. There are now only 10 families – maybe less – left working in silver in Prizren.

What keeps Gjini going is his son, Nue, who is keen to inherit his father’s trade.

The 23-year-old is probably the youngest filigree jeweler in Prizren and is proud to continue the family tradition. 

“I have been interested in this since I was nine. To me, this is the best job in the world,” he added.

The young man says he grew up surrounded by tools and silver threads, which later became more than a hobby, as he followed in his father’s and grandfather’s steps.

“My favorite style in filigree is Baroque, especially for necklaces, because it requires more details and a combination of threads and beads,” he says, adding that he intends to continue working and teaching the next generation so as to keep the family profession going.

“We inherited this for centuries, which makes me feel good while working. I want to continue this tradition,” he insists.

 “I don’t think there is any other artisan of my age in Prizren. If there was one, we would definitely know each other,” he remarks.

During the difficult 1990s for filigree artisans, they were obliged to trade in other silver and gold jewelry, importing goods from countries like Turkey, Italy and others.

Nowadays one gram of filigree costs between four and five euros, which makes it difficult for artisan family to survive only from this work, so they still sell other manufactured gold and silver jewelry exported from other countries.

The most interested customers for filigree in Prizren are the tourists, mostly introduced by guides who present this silverwork as part of the city’s identity.

But Nrec Gjini says that lately people from Kosovo are becoming more interested in filigree jewelry as well. It is still is not comparable with the 1980s, but he hopes things will get better.

“Lately we have had customers who wish to wear filigree jewelry even on their wedding day,” he says hopefully, recalling how his father used to fashion wedding rings.

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