You’ve seen them. Especially if you chose the Kvarner region as your vacation spot. Kitschy, shiny blackamoor ornaments, often seen in jewellery stores or on trinket stands. They depict a chubby black-skinned individual wearing a white turban and a huge necklace carved with diamonds. People call it “Morcic” and it is a very popular symbol in Croatia.
The morcic is usually found ornamenting earrings or necklace pendants. However, during the famous Carnival of Rijeka , costumed Morcics literally invade the streets and squares of town. So, what’s the story? Why are Croats so fascinated with something so foreign to their region?
The legends of Morcic
One legend speaks of Moorish troops coming in close vicinity of Rijeka. The people were afraid of these cruel warriors and prayed to God for protection. As it came to be, the heroic noble Zrinski killed the enemy leader with an arrow, while the invading troops were killed by rocks which came tumbling down from heaven. All that remained was a single, white turban atop a large boulder. Zrinski picked it up and brought it to the women of Rijeka. To commemorate the miraculous victory, they created the Morcic ornament, a Moorish character with a white turban on its head.
Another legend speaks of an Italian countess who had a black-skinned maidservant. She loved the girl very much, but she also knew how sad she was in service, being far away from her home. Determined to bring happiness to those she cared about, the countess granted the girl freedom. The thankful maiden left for home, and the countess, aware that she will never see her friend again, created Morcic jewellery as a remembrance.
Legends are fine, but history also has a version of the story. A couple centuries ago, the shores of the Adriatic witnessed turbulent relations between Croats and Venetians. However, when these two nations were not fighting each other, they shared a passion for luxurious fashion.
In the 17th century, the Venetians became obsessed with the distant Orient and its lands and culture. Entire fleets of ships were dispatched to bring back clothes and spices from these far away, mystical countries. They also brought stories about distinctive royal servants, dressed in the finest silk and wearing beautiful emeralds around their necks.
Soon, Venetian nobleman expressed an interest in hiring such personnel, which they called a moretto. Within a few years it was a matter of prestige to have at least one of these foreigners as a servant in one’s palace. Venetian jewellers were inspired by the lavish colours of the moretto’s clothing, and created a specific ornament- a miniature chubby blackamoor full of precious stones. It soon became very popular among royalty and common people alike.
Although traditionally poorer then Venetians, Croats didn’t lag behind. They created their own version of the Moretto, which is the Morcic we know today. Croats made them in a specific way, using a cullet on top of a metal surface to create miniature heads, which they then decorated with various gems. Time passed, but Morcics did not vanish from people’s earrings, rings or even knives. They soon became something much more than a piece of jewellery.
Morcic as a symbol
For the people of Rijeka, Morcic is an official symbol of the town. Back in the day, it was literally impossible for residents not to wear at least one morcic somewhere on their jewellery or clothes. Sailors believed the morcic brought good luck and protected from misfortune, which is why they usually had one on their earrings. A bigger (read: more luxurious) morcic meant a higher role in the community, and wealthy families craved the small heads with precious emeralds, rubies and gold.
Where to buy Morcic- based items?
Although Kvarner is considered the heart of Morcic production, the symbol is so popular that salesmen all around Croatia probably have them in stock. If you wish to buy the actual piece of jewellery, and don’t mind a high price, visit a professional goldsmith. They provide the best quality and craftsmanship. The leading name in the industry is Tonci Grabusic, whose small store in the centre of Rijeka (Matije Gubca 15A) provides fancy morcics to eminent Croatian politicians and celebrities.
If you have a limited budget, domestic artisans usually sell home-made bracelets or necklaces on small stands during the evening hours, and probably have some featuring the morcic. These are quite affordable and make for a good gift to your friends back home. Avoid those made of cheap, industrial plastics (often found in budget stores) as they evidently lack the beauty and quality you desire for your souvenir (even Croats protest their presence on the market).
Morcic is a good souvenir and, if made by a true expert, a wonderful piece of jewellery. Buying one will forever preserve your memory of Croatia, and will make you feel like an honorary guest of Rijeka.
Photo: Tea Cimas / CROPIX