Meet the jewellery designer behind Begum Khan, who's 'drawn to the dramatic and ugly'

Begum Kiroglu offers a glimpse into the magical world of her jewellery brand intent on doing it differently

Turkish jewellery designer Begum Kiroglu. Photo: Begum Khan
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The late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen once famously said of his fascination for the macabre, “Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me”.

Turkish jewellery designer Begum Kiroglu seems to share a similar view Her designs shun nice, delicate jewellery in favour of bold designs featuring insects and creepy crawlies. “I’m inspired by the animals that are not traditionally accepted as beautiful,” she tells The National. “I’m always drawn to the dramatic and ugly.”

Kiroglu has built a reputation for weird, quirky, out-of-the-ordinary jewellery. As the founder and designer behind the cult jewellery brand Begum Khan, she's made her mark with her beautifully individualistic designs.

Large and small pendants, often on chunky chains, with depictions of praying mantises, frogs or tortoises are commonplace in her collections. Pearl chokers feature spiky-legged beetles and mice nestle as hidden details. Earrings, meanwhile, can be anything from a starfish to a shrimp to a coiled dragon. Nothing, it seems, is off the menu.

To understand Kiroglu’s vision, it is worth noting that she was raised by a family of art collectors in Istanbul and attended an Italian school in the Turkish city before moving to London to perfect her English. She decamped to Milan to attend university, and then for her master’s degree, she relocated once more – this time to China. “I stayed six years and I learnt Mandarin. The whole thing is quite mix-and-match,” she says.

While this nomadic life laid out the world as inspiration, her artistic tendencies did not surface until a family wedding. Intending to flip the Turkish tradition of giving gifts of jewellery to the bride, Kiroglu wanted to present her brother, the groom, with a pair of keepsake cufflinks.

Eager to give her brother something that he could wear for his wedding, but would still “make sense as a gift from his sister” 30 years later, her search proved futile. Undeterred, she started sketching and had a pair made instead.

This led to her father and uncle requesting cufflinks as well, and soon she was running a low-key side enterprise. “My business was really small. I was working full time at another job and got one cufflink order a week,” she explains.

Kiroglu also designed and made lapel pins just for herself, but these were strictly personal. “I didn’t sell them because I didn’t want to go into women’s jewellery,” the designer says.

As is often the case, however, this decision was taken out of her hands when a shop selling her cufflinks began pressing Kiroglu to make women’s jewellery, following several requests from customers.

Eventually, she agreed. To her surprise, what was meant to be a one-off sale, was a huge success. “It sold out in one hour, everything gone. I was selling four sets of cufflinks a month, and then suddenly I sold 30 pieces of jewellery in an hour. That’s when I said, ‘OK, maybe I should take this a bit more seriously.’”

This sparked the launch of her brand Begum Khan in 2012, and today, it is stocked at Ounass, Farfetch, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Selfridges, among others.

One element that has remained constant since day one is that every piece is handmade in the workshop adjacent to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. “My workshop is there because the whole sector, the whole industry is there.”

Being so close to centuries of technical know-how allows the designer to create pieces that may be unexpected, but have exemplary workmanship. Many of Kiroglu’s pieces are smothered in tiny pave stones, giving an air of shimmering luxe to even the creepiest crawlies, using diamonds, rubies, coral, turquoise, pearls, crystals and semi-precious stones. Her choice to use gold and bronze nods to Ottoman history.

Kiroglu’s attention to detail caught the eye of the French perfume house Guerlain, which invited her to collaborate on decorating large perfume bottles in 2020. Called the Bee Bottle, Kiroglu redesigned it with gem-encrusted orchids, on which rests a gold-plated, bronze bee. She remains extremely proud of this project. “I’m the first Turkish designer who ever collaborated with LVMH, and I think I’m the first Muslim woman to [collaborate] with Guerlain.”

However, with the bottles completed in 2021, at the height of the pandemic lockdowns, each carefully hand-made piece travelled straight from the workshop to private collectors, without being seen by a wider audience. Although delighted with how it was received, Kiriglu admits that was something of a bitter-sweet experience. “We did all this work, but no one saw the bottle. I tell people I did a collaboration with Guerlain and they're like, “You did? I didn’t see it.”

Among collectors, however, the interest was so great that despite a €18,000 price tag, the bottles sold out in record time. “It went crazy,” she explains.

Buoyed by the collaboration's huge success, last year, Guerlain again invited Kiriglu for a second tie-up that would be shown off to thousands of people. “Guerlain told me: 'This time we have to do it again and show it off properly'.”

Called “Beelieve in Fantasy”, this project is much wider ranging, stretching from decorated perfume bottles to cases for the Rouge G lipstick, to a set of black-rimmed plates depicting a bee, a scarab beetle, a frog and a tiger's head, all in shimmering pave stones. Kiriglu even designed the stores festive windows. Once again, things flew off the shelves.

The heart of her work, Kiroglu believes, is that everything is made by hand. While mechanising the process would cut down on time, making it easier to keep up with demand, there would be a creative sacrifice. “It’s a totally different way of working if you press it on a machine. I’m an emotional person, and I really appreciate the craftsmanship. The artisan who’s making the jewellery also has a feeling, and he is passing that into the piece. I love this. It’s not just an item, it’s living art.”

With a wide array of products, that now includes bejewelled evening clutches, it seems customers cannot get enough of her work, including, one who literally bought a bag out of her hands. “It had my name on it,” she laughs, “it was my personal bag, and was worn and scratched, but the customer didn’t care. She just wanted it.”

An ability to find joy in situations seems to come easily to Kiroglu, who is quick to laugh during our conversation. While it may at first seem at odds with her insect subject matter, she insists the two are not mutually exclusive. “I’m a playful person. I like to keep that childishness – it’s very precious. I mean, you can be really sophisticated, but if you can still have that childish side, it just makes everything better.”

As for the creatures that she finds so fascinating? It turns out these were part of her childhood. “The reality of the world is sometimes too much for me, so since childhood, I have created an imaginary world for myself. There are animals and colours in this world. This is how I survived.”

The large, blousy flowers that are now part of her jewellery repertoire were in her imagination. The ladybirds, mice and crocodiles that populate her work are far from scary; they are in fact much cherished echoes of her childhood imagination. “I have this strange curiosity for things that are genuinely different,” Kiroglu says.

Of all the creatures she uses, one in particular holds a special place, the scarab beetle. “I believe in my scarabs. They bring me good luck,” she says. Inspired by Ancient Egypt, the beetle has now cemented its place as the emblem of her company.

“When I started the brand, we didn’t choose a logo. I tried, but I just didn’t like anything. But after 10 years, the scarab has become our organic logo. It wasn’t planned, and now I love it.”

Updated: April 21, 2024, 10:04 AM