On my desk, among other things, I keep a komboloi, Greece’s secular rosary, its worry beads, although that term can be considered vulgar. My komboloi has nineteen cylindrical beads loosely threaded on a loop of silk cord, plus a papas bead closing the loop, with four Ottoman coins called akçes hanging from it. The coins and the slim plaits to which they’re attached have the dusty, gunmetal colour typical of the silver alloys traditionally used in eastern Mediterranean. The beads themselves are a smoky red, slightly translucent, neither glossy nor matt.
“Faturan,” the owner of the shop said, when I picked out the komboloi from the hundreds on display, to try in my hand. It was a damp October afternoon in Nafplio and I had been testing out komboloi for three days, trying to find beads that felt right in my fingers and were within my budget.
“Faturan?” I said, looking at the price-tag. I knew that some of the most collectible komboloi were made from a mysterious substance called Faturan, the origins and true nature of which were, as Churchill said of Russian intentions, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The Faturan beads I had seen so far were priced high above what I was willing to pay; these were not.
“Not of the highest quality,” he said. “And some of the beads are damaged. But certainly Faturan.”
The obscurity—frequently obscurantism—that engulfs Faturan has a context. The entire history of today’s komboloi is sketchy, featuring large gaps plugged with impressive creativity. It goes something like this:
The komboloi has its origins in the years when Greeks were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, both those in what is now, Greece, and also elsewhere across the Levant. With the Ottomans came Islam, and with Islam came the tespih, a string of prayer beads usually having ninety-nine beads corresponding to the ninety-nine Names of Allah. The religious role of the tespih does not prevent its recreational use, and it can also be teased through the hands, worried, when its owner is not at prayer. Nor does religion impose austerity on design and manufacture, so a tespih made of fine materials with superior craftsmanship is a powerful status symbol.
Greeks, being Orthodox Christians, had no need for prayer beads but were happy to appropriate and secularise the tespih as a simple plaything. They retained the imam bead where the two ends of the thread join (but renamed it papas, or the priest), and reduced the number of beads to gave them some space to move. No standard number of beads for a komboloi emerged, although the number is always odd; some regard prime numbers as propitious.
Playing with the komboloi began as a habit of the working classes. Nineteenth century writers refer to both Christian and Muslim men retiring to all-male tavernas in the evening to “play backgammon, twirl worry and sip sweet coffee.” By the 1930s there was a particular association with the manges, underworld types who frequented tekes, the hashish bars of Piraeus. Rembetika music documented the manges’ lives and crimes as they lived and committed them and, on a number of early recordings, the percussion is a komboloi being tapped on a wine glass to mark time.
The komboloi was rejected by the bourgeoisie as, increasingly, polite society embraced Western European models. Greece even re-invented its national cuisine, the classically-trained chef Nikolaos Tselementes single-handedly “modernising” it by smothering Eastern Mediterranean dishes in French sauces to conjure up hybrid recipes such as moussaka. The komboloi was the plaything of peasants, gangsters, after the 1923 population exchange that saw over a million Orthodox Christians arrive from Turkey, orientalised refugees. It had no place in a modern, occidental Greece.
After the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and the civil war that followed, Greece was ready to re-invent its society once more. It was no warmer towards the East, yet its enthusiasm for European models had faded. Nationalist fervour demanded a Greece that was Greek, so people cast around for unduly-neglected Greekness. One thing turned out to be the bouzouki-led music, Rembetika. The bouzouki itself was given an extra course of strings, and then it was taken out of the tekes and away from the manges, and installed in nightclubs where tuxedoed customers could listen to songs about love and loss, rather than opiates and knife-fights.
It was a couple of decades later, in just such a nightclub, that I first heard live bouzouki music. At a nearby table, a male customer ordered a stack of dinner plates and smashed them at the zeibekiko dancers’ feet, signalling both his appreciation of the dancing and his ability to pay for plates simply to break them. On the tablecloth alongside his bottle of Dimple Haig, that period’s status whisky, a fine komboloi was displayed.
For, like the bouzouki, the komboloi had emerged from the shade.
When rich men—and, until very recently, the komboloi was a purely masculine interest—divine that something has the potential to communicate their status, it starts to change in character. Jewellers strove to create ever more prestigious komboloi from silver, onyx, coral, ivory and gemstones. But a komboloi has function as well as form, and while such beads were—and continue to be—both beautiful and collectable there is general agreement that, in the hand, the finest beads are made of amber.
A fossilised tree resin, with a golden glow that seems to come from deeper inside it than its own depth permits, amber is light in weight and warm to the touch. Amber beads produce a pleasing tok when they tap each other and, when held the palm of the hand, they can release a whiff of incense. Amber is also comfortingly expensive in its finer qualities, a clear benefit for the luxury goods market. Amber only has two obvious flaws: it is comparatively fragile, which can lead to chipped beads for the more enthusiastic bead-worrier, and it is impossible to date.
For something else that came with the komboloi’s elevation in status was a desire to own antique examples. Fine craftsmanship and precious materials are all very well, but history—and the komboloi’s history was being extensively reworked at this time, pushed back into the fifteenth century and even beyond—adds an extra dimension: scarcity. The great thing with antiques as status symbols is that they aren’t making them any more—buy one, remove it from the market, and you increase the scarcity, and thus the value, of any other examples and, by extension, your own.
Unfortunately, in the case of the komboloi, they were still making antiques, and plenty of them. As a working-class toy, a genuine nineteenth century komboloi would likely be made of a proletarian material such as olive wood, sheep’s bone or commercial glass beads: not calculated to excite a status-aware collector. So Greek traders headed east and south to buy up precious old tespihs and misbahas from the Levant and Egypt, and north and west for fine rosaries from Catholic countries. Then they re-strung the beads on new cords as “antique” komboloi.
For amber, such voyages weren’t even necessary—eighteenth century amber is indistinguishable from twentieth century amber, so craftsman just made new antiques, chasing the papas bead with a little salvaged Ottoman silver to add a note of genuine age.
But if the best beads are amber, yet the provenance of antique amber is impossible to verify, what is the collector of (and the dealer in) antiques to do? The answer was found by casting a wider net, reaching out past the tiny shoal of raw materials traditionally considered to be valuable.
As the twentieth century evolved, everyday beads were increasingly made of plastics and resins. The quality of these varied hugely, but one was accepted as being superior to all others. Believed to be Egyptian, this resin had the hand-weight of amber, similar acoustic qualities and it even delivered a hint of incense when warmed, but it was far tougher. Its colour generally varied from a warm orange that was almost indistinguishable from natural amber through to a deep rich blood red, with anything from an almost glassy clarity to a milkiness bordering on opacity. Best of all, it seemed to have completely disappeared from the market at some time in the 1940s—they weren’t making it any more.
It was called Faturan, and it needed a history. That history went like this:
Long, long ago, probably in the 1780s, an Egyptian chemist, one Arava Faturan, set himself the task of producing a substance that had all the merits of amber without its fragility and its high cost. After years of sweating at his pestle and mortar he found a way of combining amber dust and filings with various other ingredients such as mastic resin, colophony, frankincense, turpentine and, in most versions, bakelite. The exact composition was, of course, secret but the end result produced a substance of incomparable beauty, fragrance and utility that was treasured across the Ottoman world. Around 1940 production stopped for reasons that are murky, but often credited to the supply of some essential ingredient of the formula just drying up.
I see problems in this particular history, starting with the chemist’s first name, which is almost certainly a corruption of the Greek word for Arabic, aravas. However, recognising that “an Arab, Faturan” may have evolved into “Arava Faturan” isn’t the biggest concern, nor is the suggestion that Faturan doesn’t seem to be an Egyptian or Arabic name. The key issue is the almost universal inclusion of “bakelite” in the recipe for this remarkable substance. Bakelite, the first successful synthetic plastic, was only developed by Leo Baekeland in the first years of the twentieth century.
Friedrich Adolf Traun, an Olympic tennis gold medallist, blew his brains out in Hamburg’s Park Hôtel Teufelsbrücke at the age of thirty-two when confronted with details of a bigamous marriage in which he had engaged. His initials, however, lived on in a new resin produced from 1913 by his father’s firm, Dr. Heinrich Traun & Söhne. It was one of many such products that emerged in the wake of Bakelite, all very similar to it, but just different enough to keep the patent lawyers at bay. These days all are often genericised as small-b bakelite, but Dr. Traun sold his as Faturan.
So Faturan is simply a low-cost, mass-produced early plastic; generically, bakelite. Rods were manufactured in industrial Germany before being shipped out to Egypt to be worked into beads. And as for the end of production, the aggressive refocusing of German manufacturing facilities at the outbreak of World War II covers that.
There are still enough problems with this version of Faturan’s history to give me pause. For example: all experts agree (and I confirm) that a komboloi made of true Faturan will, when warmed, produce a gentle incense-like fragrance just as amber does. That’s not true of mass-produced phenoplastics such as Bakelite. Most of them give off a slight hint of formalin, in fact, the smell of a school chemistry laboratory or a mortuary. Anyway, if Faturan was being mass-produced for a few decades, why is considered to be so scarce?
Just down the road from the shop where I bought my komboloi in Nafplio is the Komboloi Museum, where I bought my copy of owner Aris Evanghelinos’s little book, The Komboloi and its History. It really has very little to say about the komboloi’s history but focuses on the story of the author’s own esoteric relationship with it. It takes the reader from his first encounter as a small boy in the 1950s through voyages, meetings and experiences that bring him ever closer to the soul of his beads.
One trip—it’s undated, but probably in the late 1960s—sees him travel first to Alexandria and on to a bead-making workshop in Upper Egypt said to have been in continuous operation for over thirteen hundred years. Hussein, the “father” of the workshop, explains that he makes beads using a method derived from that devised by the improbable chemist, Faturan.
“Faturan specialised in compounds of amber, resin, bakelite, mastic and colophony,” he says. “This method allowed for the addition of colour during the process. In this way very beautiful beads were made, yellow, orange, red, purple in all shades and hues.”
So far, little differs from the conventional history. However, Hussein has something else to say that really does change things; he describes the process of manufacture:
“They added to the amber filings various other resins such as colophony, mastic, bakelite. Then they immersed this mixture into acetone, the solvent of resin. Under distillation the solvent detaches the fluid ingredients of the resin from the solid ones. After that the solid parts which remain, are heated, placed in high-pressure hydraulic presses, and are left there as long as necessary for the various carvings to stick together and become like stone again. In this manner a new material is created, hard and firm ready for use.”
This isn’t a procedure conceived by an eighteenth century chemist, nor is it the artisanal approach that might be expected from a centuries-old bead business in the Egyptian desert. It is a process that belongs in the world of modern industrial manufacturing. Specifically, the manufacturing process of what is technically known as thermosetting phenoplastic or, generically, bakelite.
To produce bakelite you combine powdered bakelite resin with a filler—wood flour for Bakelite itself—and then heat that mixture while placing it under pressure. Which is pretty much what Hussein is describing, only the filler is amber filings and the bakelite or an equivalent phenol resin is combined with other, natural resins.
So maybe there really is a secret formula behind the Faturan used to make rare antique komboloi. Perhaps industrial Faturan has had its name appropriated and there are two different Faturans. First, there is the straightforward German phenoplastic. Second, an adaptation of its manufacturing process that introduces elements such as amber as a filler, and arcane approaches to colouring (Hussein mentions soaking the amber/resin mixture in brandy or red wine and then roasting before pressing).
I am pretty sure that the recipe’s origins don’t go back into the mists of time, but rather to somewhere around the beginning of the 1920s when the first “bakelite” presses would have been imported to Egypt, perhaps under the Faturan brand. Then, the local market’s demand for beads led to quiet experimentation with the final stage of the plastic-making process. And I can believe that the results of this experimentation were still being made as late as the 1960s (although, in the collector’s market that believed it to be extinct, any later product that surfaced would simply be labelled and sold as pre-1940).
A secret, however, remains a secret, whether it’s from two hundred years ago or still locked in a safe, written in code, in a workshop in Upper Egypt, as Hussein tells us his ancestors’ Faturan formula is. Without a key, without a code, how can that secret be unlocked and deciphered?
Ted Breaux was a research chemist in New Orleans with a somewhat recondite hobby: he enjoyed a glass of absinthe from time to time. Not the modern mint-flavoured vodkas from Eastern Europe, but the genuine fée verte as enjoyed in France before its 1915 banning. New Orleans was a good place to have Breaux’s hobby—the city’s deep historical links with France mean that caches of pristine pre-ban absinthe emerge from its older cellars from time to time. However, Breaux wasn’t satisfied with the occasional sip from a decades-old bottle; he wanted to make his own.
Breaux did his research and sourced historic recipes from France and Switzerland sworn to contain genuine absinthe ingredients and quantities. He distilled dozens of different spirits that were all quite unsatisfactory. Then he applied his day job to the task. Using tools such as gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer he examined numerous samples of vintage pre-ban absinthe. By identifying their precise chemistry, he was able to reverse-engineer the manufacturing processes.
Today, Breaux is no longer a research chemist; he runs Jade Liqueurs, a firm making high-end absinthe that is almost indistinguishable from the pre-ban stuff and, I can attest, quite delicious.
The lock that protects Egyptian Faturan’s recipe could undoubtedly be picked in a similar way. There can be nothing magical about it—it has to be clever if, perhaps, somewhat unorthodox, industrial chemistry. With the right skills and the right tools, someone could easily work out precisely what is in old Faturan and, from that, deduce just how it was made. Science could unpack several generations of myth and misinformation and enable the resurrection of a lost art. Unless and until it does, however, Faturan’s fabulous history will continue to grow alongside the collectability and price of its beads.
My komboloi is not of the highest quality and some of the beads are damaged. I still play with it from time to time but I mostly keep it on my desk because it is a thing of beauty. And because its beads are Faturan, which is still a little magical.
Michael Hardaker is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town.
Cover photograph copyright © 2016 Michael Hardaker, all rights reserved. Used by permission.