For designer Rasmina Gurbatova, jewellery is a medium through which Azerbaijan’s rich history and culture can be shared with the world. Lauren Cochrane finds out more
Rasmina Gurbatova is a bundle of contradictions. She’s the founder and designer of Azerbaijani jewellery brand Resm, but barely wears any jewellery. She has a finance background but refuses to tailor her creations for commercial gain. She’s a talented musician who plays only at private parties. And she is, by her own admission, “not a very organized person”, who manages a team of seven, moving between meetings, research and making jewellery, while caring for two young daughters.
It was Gurbatova’s perpetually long to-do list that helped her realize where her vocation lay. While she now works in jewellery, it isn’t her passion as such – you might even call her a reluctant jeweller. What really makes her light up is the rich history of her country, and telling the stories, legends, traditions and tales that make Azerbaijan what it is today. “Back then, we didn’t have souvenirs to tell the story of our culture,” she explains. “So my idea was to translate national ornaments into new mediums. I’d previously thought I might use textiles, but one day I designed a pendant based on the border of an Ajima carpet. I knew then that enamel was perfect. Resm means ‘picture’ in our language, and the concept was for jewellery that would convey something,” she says.
The idea didn’t come out of the blue. Gurbatova’s father is a jeweller and he helped her create that first piece. While she had previously shown little desire to follow in his footsteps, the stars aligned when she saw the grass-green and claret enamel pendant. “When I’d finished my first item at the workshop, I realized just how cool it was going to be,” she says.
Gurbatova was working at the World Bank in Baku when she set up the brand in 2011. “Back then, I was working at the bank full time, and then from 6pm until late I was developing my products,” she says. “My family were so supportive.”
The leap-of-faith moment came when she had to turn down a promotion at the bank in order to pursue this new departure. Gurbatova’s father was unsure at the time. “He knows how hard the jewellery industry is and thought, ‘Why do you want to do that when you have a really great job?’” she says. And now? “Now he’s very pleased,” she adds, laughing.
Using ancient symbols, exquisite, tiny scenes are played out on rings, earrings, bracelets and pendants. Recent collections have been based on the carpets of the region and the Gobustan rock petroglyphs from the 12th century BCE. Each piece comes with a certificate telling the story of the motif. A red and white pattern on rings and earrings is related to the Kufic script of the 8th century; a design of two lions on a pendant was inspired by the carvings on the gates of the Old Town in Baku; and triangular-shaped earrings are fashioned after the ‘muska’ amulet, which has magical powers.
Gurbatova is the middle daughter of three sisters, and married her husband, who works in government, in her early twenties. With two daughters – 12 and six – her work-life routine has to balance: “My studio is at home and I have an office, but I draw pretty much everywhere, as long as I have my crayons and a piece of paper.” Azerbaijani jewellery tends towards diamonds and gold, so Gurbatova’s hand-finished enamel pieces – with gems such as rubies, amethysts and citrine – stand out, and provide a modern choice for younger clients. “My style is something different.”
Gurbatova “designs on inspiration” and so releases collections throughout the year. The forthcoming range, out in September, features dragons. Often associated with Chinese culture, they are present in Gurbatova’s heritage, too. “In the 15th to 18th century there were dragons in Azerbaijani carpets,” she explains. “There is much more to our history, aesthetically speaking, than meets the eye.” Popular motifs include the ‘buta’, a plant-like shape said to bring long life, and the pomegranate, a symbol of fertility. ‘Fantastic Birds’, a cage design using motifs that give its wearer protection, is a bestseller for weddings because it “symbolizes immortality and a long life,” Gurbatova says. “My customers appreciate art and love that synergy of beauty inspired by heritage.”
Gurbatova’s fresh perspective is her strength. “I never looked at bigger brands for inspiration before and I deliberately don’t now,” she says, adding that Resm’s different approach comes from taking something out of context. “When I take an ornament, such as a carpet, and detach it from its traditional setting, it looks like something else,” she says.
Perhaps this individualism explains her effect on the local fashion and art scene. Her store in Baku has been visited by those looking to set up their own businesses. “They told me they were inspired by my story; I am always really happy to hear that,” she says.
While Gurbatova sees her mission primarily to teach Azerbaijani history through jewellery, the idea also has international reach. “Our audience are bearers of culture who wear the jewellery and tell the story,” she says, “but foreigners will also appreciate the beauty and cultural elements.”
The brand has exhibited in Dubai and Paris, as well as BaselWorld – the annual international jewellery and watch fair – in March 2016, which demonstrates how bright Resm’s future is. “We were the first Azerbaijani brand represented there,” says Gurbatova, “and were surprised at the level of attention and feedback given.” A concept store abroad is now on her bucket list.
Before she can do this, however, Gurbatova needs to consider how to grow her brand. “I currently design most of it but I’m getting requests from business people and other designers who want to join me,” she says. “I have to think about that. I want to be successful but also keep it unique.” This includes making choices that might raise the eyebrows of any potential financial partner. “When I do sets [bracelets, necklaces and earrings in the same design] it’s more popular with customers, but I don’t always want to do that with a particular motif because it can look artificial,” she says. It’s plain that Gurbatova has built her brand exactly how she wants it – and that she wants it to stay that way.
Gurbatova’s single-minded creativity is what has taken Resm to where it is today. The designer says her greatest satisfaction comes from enabling her customers to give something precious – and lasting – to their loved ones. “People put meaning into jewellery,” she says. “It is not like a dress; it lasts forever, and will get handed down, too. It makes me happy to provide that for people.
Photography by Natavan Vahabova
Check out Rasmina’s designs on Instagram
The story appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Baku magazine.