We have all heard about the quality and beauty of Iranian Persian silk rugs with their intricate woven patterns. But how much do we really know about what makes a good Persian rug? What about all the other amazing souvenirs, collectables and handicrafts of this often misunderstood country?
My visit through the bazaars of Iran opened my eyes to the beauty and techniques of these unique handicrafts. You can find bazaars in most of the cities of Iran, but the city of Isfahn is the shopping capital of the country. It is a beautiful city with tree-lined streets and a meandering river which flows under its iconic Khaju bridge.
In all the Bazaars of Iran it was hard to avoid the carpet shop – they are everywhere. The friendly sales people coax you in with kind words, the best bargains, better quality and complimentary tea. My guide took me to one such place where they walked me through what makes a carpet valuable. Conveniently, they usually wait untill you are infatuated with a particular design before they reveal the price – which can be shocking. The smallest, high quality, single knot, silk carpet starts at $400 and goes up to $2000 for a medium size one. As you move into the larger carpets, the prices continues to climb. If you can not stomach the prices of the highest quality silk carpets there is the wool carpets that tend to be cheaper.
The value is not only based on the materials, but the density of the rug which is the number of knots per square centimeter. The density varies from 40 to 144 knots per sq. cm and the less knots there are, the looser the carpet feels. There are two kinds of knots; the double knot means they double up the silk or wool thread when they tie the knot. This process is faster and therefore less expensive. Alternatively, there is the single knot which is a single strand of thread which is knotted, making the process more time consuming and more expensive.
So at the low-end of the carpet making spectrum are the 40 double knot wool rugs. At the high-end are the 144 single knot silk rugs. But, if you really want to splurge, there are the magic carpets which have two unique designs – one on each side!
As far as design, look and feel, the sales people will be more than willing to help you find whatever your heart desires. There are essentially two types of design, the local tribal or ethnic patterns which are large geometric or naturalistic designs. They are usually made from memory and the design motifs are passed down through the generations. There are the contemporary designs that are modeled after patterns found in the mosques, along with naturalistic imagery which are often found in the tile work. It is more personal preference and taste that matters in choosing your carpet design. Whatever strikes your fancy, enjoy the experience, I recommend visiting the Carpet Warehouse next to the Abbasi Hotel.
Next to my hotel, there was a fascinating miniature painting shop. You will also find them in the local bazaar, but it is important you purchase from a reputable establishment that features the work of a masterful artist. The store is located in Isfahan directly across from the Abbasi Hotel.
The paintings are usually done on small pieces of camel bone, and depict everything from the tourist local sites to stories and fables of the past. The artists in the bazaar will often make a quick little sketch for you on the back of their business cards. The drawings are made from a cat hair brush with delicate lines that vary in width similar to calligraphy. The most masterful and expensive paintings are not necessarily large, but instead incredibly detailed. Intricate shading is made out of lines and dots no fatter than a single brush hair.
Copper, Silver, Enamel Vases and More
The sounds of tapping and tinkering fill the halls of the bazaars of Iran as you walk through the silver section. Sparkling plates, vases, cups, and platters made of silver, tin, copper and richly decorated enamel all call out for you attention. The skill and workmanship is evident in the attention to detail.
The process is fascinating to watch. For any flat art pieces and platters, tar is poured onto the pavement and made into a patty. The silver is then placed on the tar patty which absorbs the tapping out of the designs. Using sharp tools, the artisans delicately model the swirling patterns one hammer tap at a time. For vases, cups and decorative containers, a circular piece of metal is spun on a machine where they slowly push the form of the vase out. They then fill it with tar and tap out the designs creating bubbling surfaces, and intricate patterns.
Painted Enamel Ware
The enamel ware goes through a whole second process. Once the object is formed, it is then coated in a white primer and painted by hand with delicate designs. Upon close inspection, you should see the individual brush strokes and a smooth surface.
Much like the miniature painting, the finer and more detailed the design, the more expensive it is. The high quality small vases start at $60 – $100 and the medium sizes go for $160 – $200. Make sure you purchase a signed piece from a good dealer, since there are many mass-produced, low quality pieces in the bazaar. In Isfahan you can go to Unique Gallery on Posht-matbakh street just adjacent to the Emam Mosque and Grand Bazaar where all the pieces are made on site and signed by the artist.
Related: Vivid Art And Textiles of Oaxaca
Inlaid Wood & Metal called Khatam or Marquetr
Many of my travel mates were on the hunt for a marquetry chess board. Marquetry is the process of combining different colored woods, bone and metals into geometric patterns that are then applied to boxes, tables, frames and more. The design is created by taking long thin strips of wood, copper, silver, bone and bundling them together. For example, a diamond-shaped strip will be surrounded by six square strips of a different color. They are then cut into thin patties and applied to the base of the box, frame or table. The surface is then sanded smooth and varnished to a shiny luster.
Imitation pieces are easy to catch. If you scratch or sand the surface, the pattern will come off. Poorly constructed pieces tend to have clumsy, asymmetrical clusters of the patterned wood along with awkward joints. So look closely and be prepared to pay for quality. The cheaper versions of the small chess board started at $80 and went up to $800, depending on the detail, size and finishes.
Get ready to haggle
Haggling is an art form and each country has their own rules. Within the bazaars of Iran, it is disrespectful to ask for a 50% discount. The most you can expect is 15% to 20%. Don’t forget it is all part of the fun, and if you buy several pieces, they will tend to discount further. If you are a U.S. Citizen be aware, you are only allowed to bring $100 worth of goods back with you. The store can give you a “fake” receipt, but make sure it is believable. If you are short on cash, the larger stores will accept AMEX and MasterCard but they run them through an associate in Dubai for a 6% markup. They can also ship the goods out though Dubai as well.
Brace your pocket book and enjoy the beauty
I loved the experience of learning about the persian carpets, and watching the tinkering of metal in the bazaars of Iran. I even found the haggling and price comparison entertaining. It is all part of the experience. At the end of the day for whatever price or whichever object you purchase, you will be reminded of this beautiful country and it’s beautiful art and handicrafts.
If you enjoy handicrafts and the arts, read my posts about Bhutans weaving culture and the pottery of Oaxaca Mexico. Need to brush up on your haggling skills? Read my post Learn The 6 Steps Of Haggling For A Travel Souvenir.
Looking to travel to Iran check out my detailed country guide: Iran Travel Tips & Country Overview
What was your favorite souvenir hunt? What recommendations do you have for souvenir shopping in Iran? Share and leave me a comment.