Traditional evil eye beads produced in İzmir. (Credit: Baha Okar)

The belief in the evil eye – or nazar – goes back thousands of years, stretching across cultures and religions in the regions surrounding Turkey. Excavations in Mesopotamia have uncovered the beads with an eye-like design that are supposed to ward off a jealous gaze from as long ago as 3,300 BC, while in the Mediterranean region the custom is dated to at least 1,500 BC.

Izmir, an ancient city on the Aegean coast, has long been the centre of evil eye bead production in Turkey. The handmade beads are exported not just to other parts of the country but internationally – in particular to Greece, where the evil eye tradition is also widespread. But the trade is now suffering as a result of globalization and cheaper overseas competitors. 

The evil eye is even incorporated in Izmir’s logo. (Credit: İZKA 2012, www.izka.org.tr)

Evil eye production in Izmir started with the arrival of Arab craftsmen during the First World War. Abdülazim and sons, who later adopted the Turkish last name Özboncuk – meaning “real bead” – set up shop in the central neighbourhood of Kemeraltı. They arrived from either Egypt or Jerusalem; Izmir residents today can’t agree on which.

The Özboncuks started out making beads that were used to adorn animals used in trade and commerce. After the elder Abdülazim died, his sons took their craft to the Izmir village of Görece and later to Kurudere, where nearby pine forests offered an optimal location for workshops. The second generation of masters modified the beads so people could use them as jewellery. 

In 2007, Kurudere was renamed Nazarköy – “Nazar Village” – since it had so long been synonymous with the beads. Yet today, evil eye production has been reduced to a handful of workshops in the village. 

A traditional evil eye bead workshop. (Credit: Baha Okar)

One of the few evil eye masters left in Nazarköy, Uğur Karataş has been carrying out the craft for 23 years, since he was just 11 years-old. He was taught by his father and grandfather, who in turn had also been also trained by their elders. 

“There are four or five workshops left in the village,” he said. “My shop is the only one where three or four of us work together. There’s maybe ten people working actively in evil eye production today. So the number of masters protecting Izmir from evil eyes and carrying on this ancient craft are no more than the number of fingers on two hands.” 

Uğur Karataş is one of the few masters who continue to continue traditional evil eye production in Nazarköy.  (Credit: Baha Okar)

After the village was renamed Nazarköy, tourists’ fairs were organised to display and sell the beads. Masters and local women who produce jewellery founded the Nazarköy Handmade Evil Eye Protection and Preservation Association, of which Karataş has served as chair. 

Chinese-made evil eye beads have become so common that they are sold even in Nazarköy’s traditional touristic marketplace. (Credit: Baha Okar)

Karataş said that the renaming of the village marked a golden age for the craft, when the number of active workshops rose to 18. Five masters were in charge of production at each shop, while local women designed accessories and jewelry to turn the beads into decorative items. 

Imported beads from China are the main reason for the village’s current decline, Karataş explained. These mass-manufactured beads are much cheaper in comparison to handmade ones, selling at almost a fifth the price of the latter and offering much more variety in colour and designs. Even the tourist fair in Nazarköy offers Chinese beads for sale, he said. 

“We produce each bead individually, working in front of a fire burning at 1,200 degrees. Inevitably, there are labour costs involved. Besides, we’re having an increasingly difficult time finding discarded glass to use as raw material, which adds to our production cost. It’s really hard for us to compete under these circumstances,” Karataş said. He thinks the art of evil eye production will slowly die out in Turkey unless raw materials and marketing are subsidized by the state.

Traditional evil eye beads are produced in furnaces made of bricks, clay and barley. Fuelled by pine wood, the intense heat allows for glass to be melted and then coloured with copper oxide. Wrapped around steel rods, the glass is shaped by skilled masters who then place opaque white glass in the middle of the bead to shape the ‘eye’. 

One of the biggest wholesale vendors in Izmir, former evil eye master Hüseyin Hüsnü Alp, told Inside Turkey that imports from China have been halted for two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And Chinese goods are not the only reason behind the decline of the evil eye industry, he continued. The Chinese beads have lowered prices and lowered the perceived value of evil eyes, but the real issue is that the market is becoming smaller and inconsistent.

“Back when home economics classes were offered [in schools], students would make sewn pot holders and use 16 beads for each pot holder. Imagine the number of all schools in Turkey: it would be impossible to make enough beads for all of them even if all shops worked at full capacity,” Alp said. 

Sales of evil eye beads are also driven by celebrity culture. Famously, sales skyrocketed when the iconic Turkish singer Zeki Müren wore an evil eye pendant on the cover of his 1978 album Nazar Boncuğu (Evil Eye Beads). A more recent spike occurred after the actress and model Serenay Sarıkaya posted a photo of herself wearing an evil eye necklace on Instagram. According to Alp, however, this was a blip in an otherwise steady decline. 

Iconic Turkish singer Zeki Müren’s album cover from 1977 is seen on the left, while Serenay Sarıkaya’s social media post is seen on the right. (Credit: Serenay Sarıkaya’s social media account)

In 2012, UNESCO placed the evil eye on its list of at-risk “intangible cultural heritage” list, because of the threat to traditional handcraft. Mahmut Sür, a leading evil eye master, was also given the UNESCO Living Human Treasure Award. But without more government support, and with ongoing competition from abroad, the industry remains under threat. Some small hope may lie in more celebrity endorsements: recently, both Kim Kardashian and Meghan Markle have been photographed wearing evil eye jewellery.

The evil eye necklace worn by Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and the bracelet worn by American celebrity Kim Kardashian were effective in reviving the thousands-year-old symbol. (Credit: https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/10023696/meghan-markle-evil-eye-necklace-archie-protect-jealousy-royal-tour/ – Josie Griffiths)