The shaggy dog story of the birth of Bulgar USA's ceramic line began with Donna Hadjipopov’s quest for rose oil.
Back in 1997, Hadjipopov, nee Woldin, had quit the restaurant business to launch an aromatherapy company. On a train ride to Long Island’s East End, she discovered an advertisement for the Montauk-based Bulgar, owned by Bulgarian-born entrepreneur George Hadjipopov, who sold a natural skin-care line based on aromatic oils pressed from lavender and the celebrated Bulgarian damask rose. Whether it was kismet or the powers of the rose oil, Woldin and Hadjipopov hit it off at first meeting; love bloomed and four years later so did Bulgar USA's pottery collection. The success of their business may have started with love, but it happened because of the founders’ persistence.
Bulgar's success comes in large part with from the Hadjipopovs close collaboration with artisans across Bulgaria. Bulgar currently employs nearly 30 men and women, with more jobs opening up as production increases. Mostly men filter the local red clay to its famous silky smooth texture. The process takes numerous months, according to Hadjipopov. "Once it is dug it is filtered and left to rest for some time. We have a series of mixing tubs, filters and machines that produce the final clay. We have refined our own processes to control the plasticity and color of our clay."
From there the men hand-form the vessels and afterwards the pottery is shaped and bisque-fired. Each piece is hand-decorated by women in a series of steps that includes the engobe—the white glaze foundation. After the base glaze dries (which can take up to two weeks), the decorative work is applied. The women use a stylus to create a spiral pattern while continuously turning the potter's wheel with their feet. As with marbled paper or the glaze of a Napoleon, a very thin brush is used to interrupt the lines of decorative glazes in regular, sinuous waves.
Creating high-quality glazes and a flawless final product took several years and multiple processes. Some of the challenges the Hadjipopovs met included: lead in the glazes; post-Communist color palette; and lackluster quality control and management techniques.
The Hadjipopovs confronted each obstacle with zeal and tenacity. At first they tackled the glaze issue and began to use lead-free glazes in which the finish was not perfectly glossy. Some of the artisans they worked with were hesitant to try out new formulas. In time, though, the Hadjipopovs found the right formulas, and a team of artisans who were more flexible in trying the new materials.
To cater to the demands Western retailers, quality control had to be completely overhauled. One example was in dealing with the sand and stones speckling the glazes after final firing. In spite of several ongoing discussions with their team of artisans, nothing appeared on the horizon as a solution. It wasn't until someone admitted that the kilns weren't properly cleaned between firings that the problem of gritty glazes was resolved.
Part of what has made Bulgar a success with consumers worldwide was the collections' lighter palettes -- suitable for the tastes of traditional consumers. The colors that were typically used were dark blue, natural red clay, and forest green. Hadjipopov recognized that a complex design rendered in simple palette on a white background would attract more customers. An obstacle they faced was that local clay was a rich dark red and white had never been attempted as a base color. Eventually even this was overcome.
One of the most popular lines, the Chocolate collection, started as a misstep. Several years ago Hadjipopov noticed black and white in high-end fashion advertising and suggested a black and white collection with some pieces having a bit of red to add pop. She says, "Months went by and no success. The black pigments were not finishing smoothly. And red is a challenging color in any medium. When I flew my assistant over with the samples for the NY Gift Show she brought brown and white, with pink accents. I had been telling clients that our Black collection was due and I put the samples on the bottom shelf of our booth not sure what to do. Of course everyone noticed them and raved. My assistant said in very knowing way, 'Well you know Donna, brown and pink are THE fashion colors now'. And indeed the stores and designers scooped everything up."
Another goal was to bring back styles that were considered largely lost. Historically numerous cultures have had a strong influence over Bulgaria, including Slavs, Ancient Thracians, Byzantines, and – for 500 years -- the Ottomans. Hadjipopov explains, "The design most connected to the Ottomans is Bairak which means ‘flag’ in Turkish. Additionally the covered clay pot that is used throughout Bulgaria for the savory long simmering stews that is a strong foundation to their cuisine is a gyuvech, again of Turkish origins, and something we produce."
The decorative work that Bulgar has become widely known for, Troyan, originates from a very small village. Bulgar inspired and collaborated with the women to do the decorative work and encouraged them to reach deep into their individual and unique creativity. Hadjipopov notes, "In the past, pre-Communism, you would know who made a particular dish based on the design alone, and we have been working on bringing this tradition back and include the signature of each woman."
Bulgar also developed the Turnovo collection with a third generation Master Potter Nikolai Yovkov. The style began in the 12th century capital of Veliko Turnovo, and the technique involves sgrafitto-- incising the clay after the engobe has been applied. Although the process is complex, Nikolai Yovkov, incorporates his own very unique style is inspired by local floral and fauna.
Right from the start, museums, boutiques, and art galleries have recognized the uniqueness and authenticity of Bulgar’s collections. Yet Donna Hadjipopov clearly remembers her first journey to Bulgaria, when she discovered that there was very little pottery in stores and that traditional artisanal work often lay fallow. However with a good eye that recognized the potential in revitalizing a near-lost tradition, dogged perseverance, and a keen business sense, the treasures of what was considered a hidden culture have been discovered and are now cherished in many homes.
See www.bulgarusa.com for more information.
What They Did for Love
Donna and George Hadjipopov embrace Bulgarian pottery