In an unassuming former cigarette factory in the Kosovo town of Prizren, Xhafer takes a deep breath and blows through a rubber tube, casting a steady flame through a small metal pipe. He moves the pipe slowly, directing the bright orange flame up and down a sheet of steel mesh, on which are rows of small silver pieces, sprinkled with soldering powder.
This is just one of the many labour-intensive steps in the production of intricate handmade silver filigree pieces. It takes quite a team of skilled craftspeople to create them. Next to Xhafer are three more workers, wearing dark green, longsleeved overalls, sitting at the large wooden workbench covered with a blue-checked plastic cloth. Overhead neon strips illuminate the work area. Zyriya measures and cuts hair-like threads of silver, and Ayteh weaves the silver strands into intricate shapes with a minuscule pair of tweezers.
At the adjacent desk is the bespectacled Bashkim, the senior member of the team, who leafs through an enormous folio of his designs and discusses them with the manager, Faik Bamja. A heap of semi-precious stones, a pile of ring settings, and a scattering of tiny tools sit in front of him.
This simple workshop, owned by the cooperative Filigran ShPK, is certainly the busiest floor of the three-storey building. It lies in Zona Industriale, an unlovely scatter of factories and warehouses well to the west of central Prizren. Most of the building is empty, its rooms and corridors strewn with rubbish from another era.
While most of the space just gathers dust, the filigree workshop is a hub of creative energy. Bright silver threads are interwoven to create lacelike decorative designs. It’s a delicate art, thought to have originated in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, dating back to 3,000 BC. It became popular in the Balkan region during Ottoman times, especially in the 15th century. It is an art deeply embedded in the identity and heritage of Kosovo, and nowhere more so than in Prizren. Early travellers to this part of Kosovo often commented on the use of silver and gold in decorative ornaments. Today the specialists at Filigran ShPK work mainly with silver.
Faik takes me down a darkened corridor to the team’s equipment rooms. The walls are painted dark green and white, and a snake-like tangle of wires hangs down from the ceiling. He shows me the large Italian-made machines, geared to physically squeeze these strips of silver through holes of different diameters to make them into the thinnest threads possible.