This magnificent lake in the corner of a cold tableland, surrounded by the rough mountains of north-western Greece, was the heart of the first humble settlement, that was established here in 6th century AC.
The people of the town of Ioannina and its surrounding mountain villages didn’t find many choices for their livelihood: without fertile lands and commercial roads, crafts soon became a suitable occupation. Moreover, the lonely labour of the craftsman on his workbench seemed to be align with the solitude of the isolated landscape and his laborious efforts for survival in it.
During the next centuries , the town of Ioannina and its surrounding area were growing fast, under the authority of the downfalling Byzantine Empire. At this point, the town’s craftsmen started forming the first unions, that helped them to create an identity, organise in an exclusive community under certain rules and boost trade with the uprising closest centres.
The “chrysikoi”, the goldsmiths’ union, that encluded all craftsmen working mainly with gold and silver to create ecclesiastic pieces, jewelry and even functional everyday objects, had to be one of the most creative unions of the town, as witnessed by exquisite pieces of work that have been endured to time. Even from these years, the skilled craftsmen of the town started building upon the ancient metalwork tradition of the area of Epirus and the invaluable Byzantine artistic patterns in order to forge the local style.
Fortunately, the rise and prosperity of the chrysikoi union was not put to hold, even after the capture of the town by the Ottoman Empire in 1430, that lasted for five centuries. The privileges of the union remained untouched, while the city rapidly arose as one of the most important trading and cultural centres of the Balkans.
This era is highlighted as the brightest of the silversmithing industry in Ioannina: Numerous workshops emerge in the town and villages, while productivity and exports are growing. The artistic style and skilled techniques of local craftsmen begin to stand out throughout the empire for their quality and grace, producing masterpieces of folk art. Silver dominates as the favourite and most characteristic metal of the town’s creations, while ancient techniques that are used again (like filigree or niello) also leave their mark on local patterns . In parallel , other metals, like copper and tin, are also being crafted in large scale.
The silversmithing industry seems to be at its peak in the first years of the 19th century, when the town of Ioannina counts 30.000 inhabitants and 53 workshops! But, the events to follow proved to be devastating: In 1821, the town of Ioannina is sieged by the Ottoman Sultan’s army so as to end the local ruler’s defection. The town is evacuated and when the people return, they find it burnt and looted. The upcoming years, marked by the Greek War of Independence and the punishing suspension of the town’s privileges, come to deteriorate the trade’s situation. Still, the persistency of the silversmiths and the importance of this industry in the area’a social life, lead to the survival of many workshops, which in 1862, came up to the number of 26.
The story of the founder of the renowned House Bulgari, Sotirios Voulgaris, is very englightening about the disaster of that years , the struggle of the people to survive and also the unique talent of this area’s craftsmen. Sotirios Voulgaris descended from a family line of silversmiths, that came from the mountain village of Kalarrytes, cradle of many celebrated artists. His father had to abandon the village, when it was destroyed by the Ottoman army, as retaliation for its participation in the Greek War of Independence that bursted in 1821. The family came to settle in the nearby Ionian Sea coast, where Sotirios was born in 1857 and apprenticed to his father, becoming a skillful silversmith himself. After years of struggling and wandering as refugees, Sotirios and his family ended up in Rome, where he managed to open a store of his own and started receiving attention for his work. The rest is history…hard work, patience and talent paid off!
Back to Ioannina and the story of the silversmithing industry, the liberation of the town and its incorporation in Greece in 1913, inaugurated an era of certain stability in social and economical life, in which attempts for the preservation and development of the local silverwork culture were made. Among them, the founding of the School of Silversmiths in 1930 was of major importance, despite the fact that the workshops continued to be the main place where the craft passed through the next generations.
What makes the town of Ioannina really special , even today, is the fact that this prideful tradition stands alive and evident into modern silversmithing production. Despite the severe changes that technological advance and the mechanisation of production brought to the life of craftsmen(changes that led other industries and productive units to extinction), the Ioannina silversmiths have managed to preserve the most fundamental elements of their course in history: their invaluable traditional techniques and ways ( even the main tools used nowadays by the town’s silversmiths are almost the same as a century ago!) and the presence of numerous small workshops, each one with different artistic orientation and value that grace the town’s modern production with a remarkable variety of styles and patterns.
Thanks for reading!
The Team@SilverTownArt Greek Jewelry