When we pick up a hefty, shiny copper pan in his workshop, Emir Ali Enç unhesitatingly claims, “You are now holding the best saucepan in the world.” Wait, he says, actually the best one is his fully silver version. Enç is the gregarious founder, owner and CEO of Soy Türkiye, whose copper cookware is made by hand in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. His gorgeous pots are used around the world in Michelin-starred kitchens and in discerning households. Soy’s cezves, traditional Turkish coffee pots, are standard equipment in international Turkish coffee-making competitions. However, Enç does not come from a long line of coppersmiths. His story, it turns out, has a few twists.
In 2010, Enç was in Ankara studying to become a Turkish diplomat, just like the seven generations of his family members before him. “I was cooking through the stress,” he remembers, “and missed using my mom’s copper pots.” He started to search online for copper cooking pots, and was infuriated to learn that France was dominating the industry. “Do they even know how to use a coppersmith’s hammer there?” he asks incredulously. Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and India have the oldest, richest coppersmith traditions, a still-flummoxed Enç says, not France. Enç decided to close his political science books and put Turkey back in the high-end copper cooking pot trade. He hopped on his motorcycle and rode to Syria (this was before the civil war there and when relations between Ankara and Damascus were quite warm), where he apprenticed with a master coppersmith for six months. He read voraciously to learn the technical skills behind metal casting, alloy properties and mold manufacturing.
Enç returned to Istanbul intent on knocking the French off the copper pot-making throne. He invested $7,000 of his own money in Soy, and his parents matched that amount, even though they were worried about their son not choosing the public service path. In order to help him get more startup capital, an old friend of Enç’s secretly submitted his name to the Turkish version of the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Enç was chosen to compete, and his encyclopedic brain got him almost to the finish, but he missed a question and finished with the equivalent of yet another $7,000. In addition to his thousands of new fans, Enç now had the last bit of money he needed to start Soy.
The Soy workshop is in the Grand Bazaar’s Büyük Han (Big Inn), built in 1678. The han is a three-level rectangular stone building, surrounding an open-air courtyard. On opposite sides of the courtyard are two large entrances where caravans used to come in to pick up sails, metal works and textiles produced there for export to Europe. Open walkways on each level act like long balconies where workers take breaks and look out onto the sunlit, tree-filled courtyard. It is a fascinating place to walk around: Through each open doorway you can glimpse craftsmen at work hammering silver, welding metal or focusing on lathes.
We visited Soy’s mold maker on the upper floor of the han. A giant lathe is the centerpiece of the shadow-filled workshop where he spins metal molds for a variety of pots and lamps. Curlicue nests of sharp metal shavings sparkled in the sunlight filtering through a small, dusty window and made us watch our step. We were lucky enough be there with Turgay Yıldızlı, a world-champion Turkish coffee maker, who is creating a new cezve design. Yıldızlı works with Kronotrop, a specialty coffee shop in Cihangir, to elevate Turkish coffee to an artisan level. He is good friends with Enç, whose copper cezves are essential tools for serious competitors.
Cezve molds are difficult to produce because they are made of seven pieces that fit together like a puzzle. This is necessary, because after the coppersmith bends a copper sheet around the coffee pot mold, he has a shape with a narrow opening and a larger base. Each time, he must remove the pieces of the mold separately to free the newly formed cezve, then put the mold back together to make the next one. We watched this cycle at Enç’s workshop. A master copper spinner uses hand-forged bars and his body weight to press a sheet of almost paper-thin copper around the puzzle mold that is spinning on a heavy-duty lathe. After the cezve is formed, and free of the mold, the spinner heats the copper with a blowtorch to 600 degrees Celsius; this stage is called annealing, and prepares the copper for hammering. Bright green flames lick the cezve (copper burns green), making the place look like a sorcerer’s workshop. Then the coppersmith plunges the coffee pot into an acid bath to remove any oxidized copper. Next, the cezve is delivered upstairs to the copper hammerers.
“Muhammet is the Cristiano Ronaldo of copper hammering,” says Enç about the young man at the lathe. Muhammet, 27, learned the craft from his father in Syria. “For his age, he is the best coppersmith in the world. He can bend anything,” Enç says. Muhammet, who came from Syria three years ago, methodically hammers the cezve on an anvil, creating lines of round marks that turn a soft copper object into a durable workhorse, guaranteed to last through generations. Ahmed presses a spout into the cezve with a custom-made tool. Another worker, Erol, who is trained as a jeweler, transforms rough sand-casted handles into glimmering handles with hand files and a mechanical buffer. Next up is tinning, a process that Enç says the French want to learn, “but they will never get it.” Without giving away trade secrets, we can describe the process as such: the cezve is heated and expertly lined with a thin, heated layer of tin, then cooled so the tin sticks. Finally, the pot is buffed into shiny perfection, holes are drilled and the handle is attached. The whole process is done entirely by hand.
How do his products compare to the famous French copper pots? Enç lists the ways: French pots have sharp angles (instead of rounded ones), the larger pieces are welded (not bent), the handles conduct heat quickly (in five minutes versus Soy’s 25 minutes) and oh, they aren’t really handmade. “If by handmade, they mean the hand that presses the button on a machine, then yes,” says Enç. He has to compete with these lesser pots on price, even though his products are truly made by hand. Luckily, Enç benefits from being surrounded by artisans in the Grand Bazaar, so he can produce his wares in a just-in-time fashion, responding quickly to his international distributors’ needs. He buys his copper sheets from a vendor in the han and works closely with a sand caster for handles, a forger to make tools, a tailor for the buffing wheels and the aforementioned mold maker. Soy’s popular frying pans sell for $160 from their online shop, while cezves start at $65.
Soy exports to 37 countries and does $500,000 in turnover every year. Enç wants to expand production, he says, but without sacrificing quality or overworking his artisans. He pays his five workers better than he pays himself. They are all insured and are the only registered foreign workers in the Grand Bazaar. Labor supply is a limiting factor for Soy’s future expansion, because the youngest working Turkish cooking pot coppersmith in the Grand Bazaar is 60 years old. Enç is developing a program with a local technical high school so students can apprentice at Soy and ensure there will be a new generation of coppersmiths.
Enç’s fellow Grand Bazaar workers joke with him, wondering why he “fell to the Grand Bazaar” from a promising career in diplomacy. However, this is where Enç wants to be; his boundless enthusiasm for his company, his workers and the craft is apparent. In Turkish, soy means “the essence, the root, the core, the family lineage.” Coppersmithing is his soy, Enç tells us. “I am sad when I don’t hear hammering coming from my workshop,” he says.
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