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Persian Khatam Kari

“Khatam” is also called “Khatamkari”, and is a native Iranian woodworking method. Khatam looks like a collage; but instead of using paper and cloth, craftsmen make their projects out of wood, shells, bones, and wires.

Possibly the most common designs used in making Khatam is using the tiniest triangles. These were seen initially in the 17th century.

The triangles were glued together in geometrical shapes and assembled on the surface of the material. Before the 17th century, the shapes used were squares. But after the Mongol invasion, Iranians learned the Chinese inlay method.

The Chinese used very simple and clean black and white triangles. These lovely pieces inspired Iranian artists and added these to what they already knew with the Chinese triangle method.

The result of this combination was breath-taking art that was better than what they had before. Through the years, Iranian artists have made so many amazing and valuable Khatamkari artworks.

You will find vases, picture frames, bowls, jewelry boxes, wine pitchers and trays that are made and sold in and outside the country. Nowadays, these are prized ornamental items while some are even museum-type pieces.

Some modern artists also combined this traditional art with modern artistic techniques to create Khatam jewelry.

History of Khatam

There is no exact date when Khatam was first used. The oldest available items of Persian Khatam art were during the Safavid period.

Inlaid articles during this era had special significance. Artist used this artistic technique on doors, mirror frames, windows, boxes, pens, penholders, tombs, and lanterns.

Woodworking artisans across the globe have been developing and perfecting decorative inlay techniques for well over a thousand years. Among the spectrum of styles, one particularly interesting technique is called khatam (or khatam-kari, with khatam meaning “to seal” and kari meaning “work,” essentially the art of sealing).

Developed in the ancient Persian Empire, khatam-kari gained popularity in the 16th century. This unique form of marquetry (applying veneer patterns to a surface) features signature tiny geometric designs made of wood, metal, and bone. Artisans use khatam to lend a lavish look to anything from boxes (like the one pictured above) to lamps, vases, tables, chairs, picture frames, chess sets, and more. The tinier the design, the more skill involved to create it and the higher price it can fetch in the handmade art marketplace.

The look and patterning of khatam kari is directly linked to the technique used to create it. Thin rods of wood, bone, and metal are cut to roughly 2mm (or less) thick and 30cm long, then bound together, first with string and then with glue. The desired pattern becomes visible by looking at one end of the bundle, from which 1mm slices are cut. The slices are then arranged and adhered on the surface to be adorned. In the finished product, there may be upwards of 250 pieces to each cubic centimeter!

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