n recent years, the city of Kobani has been more in the news for its Kurdish fighters’ resistance to the onslaught of Islamic State than for its watchmaking. But Leyla Uysal, a Kurd from the Turkish side of the border, now living in the United States, has just launched a watch brand highlighting Kurdish culture: Bajer Watches.
“The four years of war against Islamic State turned Kurdish culture upside-down, and the world needs to know more about it,” the entrepreneur stresses. She describes herself as “a modern, educated Kurdish woman who moved from a small town in the Turkish countryside to Boston.”
Her goal with Bajer is to “create a path for all women and children in my region, who want to break the barriers of tradition.”
Manufacturing watches gives her the opportunity to combine the artisanal culture of her rural roots with contemporary designs. The brand also supports educational NGOs in the founder’s home region. Interview.
Europa Star: What is your background?
Leyla Uysal: I am from Suruc, a town in the south-east of Turkey, a Kurdish region on the border with the Kobani region of Syria. Fourteen million Kurds live in Turkey, with approximately twelve million living in east and south-east Anatolia. However, you don’t hear much about the Kurdish people because these areas are isolated and relatively poor. We had no running water where I grew up, whether for drinking or for essential needs. Water was brought in once every week or ten days via a tanker truck. My childhood was marked by the “state of emergency” in my region, which lasted until 2004. It was certainly one of the worst periods in our history.
The war and its effects were reflected in daily life, as well as in education. Parents were terrified to send their daughters to school. I was the only girl in my class. At the same time, in the mid-’90s the Kurdish militias were recruiting teenagers into the guerrilla movement. Local people were stuck in the middle of this reality. Experiencing poverty, lack of opportunities, and all the other unfortunate events in my life, as a kid I developed a different approach to life. I have always considered myself a global citizen, and I believe that more will be achieved in the long run by implementing peace initiatives. We have thousands of years of history in Mesopotamia as a Kurdish nation, so why not talk about all the beautiful and positive sides of our culture? That’s what Bajer Watches is all about.
“Experiencing poverty, lack of opportunities, and all the other unfortunate events in my life, as a kid I developed a different approach to life.”
What does “Bajer” mean?
Bajer means “city” in the Kurdish language. When I was a child, one of the few times we left our town to go to the city was when there were cultural festivals. This made a big impression on me because I felt special at that time, compared to everyday life in my town. It is this feeling that I want to reproduce through the watches – that those who wear them feel unique, valued, empowered...
Why did you choose watches to convey this message?
Before Bajer, I had no previous experience in watchmaking. I never even had a real watch. The first watch I ever owned was actually a fake burgundy Diesel! But it remains a powerful memory of a difficult time. Through this object with its difficult associations, I wanted to do something very positive with Bajer. I wanted to create a prestigious image for Kurdish people through fashion, and provide opportunities to children and women in my region.
One of the challenges is highlighting the value of women in a male-dominated environment. This means empowering them: we give them skills rather than money, by setting up workshops to train them in leather and silk work through regional NGOs. My project raises awareness of Kurdish culture and promotes women’s empowerment in many ways. In this manner, it has a universal echo.
“My project raises awareness of Kurdish culture and promotes women’s empowerment in many ways. In this manner, it has a universal echo.”
How did you make your project a reality?
With my savings, I started making initial designs and prototypes in 2019. I also participated in a programme in management and leadership for young entrepreneurs and start-ups at MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston. On the manufacturing side, Bajer Watches works with a small Swiss family business based in Chiasso. I am not a fan of cheap products, so it was obvious that I should go for Swiss quality. I don’t want the parts to stop working after a year! I also love working with a family company; we support each other.
I found a small family atelier in Ancona in Italy to produce the straps. I was lucky that they were really interested in the project: they spent months studying Kurdish culture! I design the patterns with a small team of designers. The motifs on the straps are inherited from our rug culture; they are a secret language among Kurdish women. I was inspired to bring those motifs onto the straps, based on a conversation I had with my grandmother when I was young.
What is the symbolism of the different collections?
Each collection is named after a Kurdish town. There is a choice of five colours of straps related to natural elements of Kurdish regions. For example, the vineyards and pistachio fields of the city of Urfa inspired our burgundy colour. We got our forest green from the stems of the rich, dark leaves of the olive trees in Antep. In the Journal section of our website, we also keep a diary of Kurdish traditions. This is not my story; these are our stories.
“On the manufacturing side, Bajer Watches works with a small Swiss family business based in Chiasso. I am not a fan of cheap products, so it was obvious that I should go for Swiss quality.”
When was the brand launched?
The launch was planned for March 2020 during the Kurdish festival of Newroz, which symbolises the rebirth of nature. But then the pandemic happened. So Bajer Watches was eventually launched in October 2021.
How do you distribute the brand?
Through my own e-commerce site. I don’t have any physical outlets, I wanted to keep everything under control initially, through online sales.
Who are your customers?
I think anyone around the world who loves style and fashion with a modern and minimalistic take would be my potential customer, as well as people who are interested in ethnic groups, women-owned businesses, and Kurdish culture. I think everybody will find something to relate to in Bajer.
Do you plan to launch products other than watches?
Yes, there are a couple more options we are working on currently. The focus is always on highlighting Kurdish women’s strength and culture, no matter what type of product we design. But specifically, given our current work in leather, we may consider making bags and purses next. Our region is also famous for its gold, silver, copper, rubies and emeralds, which could be used in the upcoming models and designs. We are committed to creating a prestigious and positive image for Kurdish culture across the globe. We will keep spreading our art and culture via our products.