Blue is the colour of Isfahan, as if heaven had come down to earth in a million fragments, taking over mosques, mausoleums, bazaars. Shades of azure cover the city in miniature designs. Along the squares, in the market, and behind, the treasures of Isfahan are displayed in the open. Silver, copper, miniatures, fabrics… this is one of that magic places, like Fez in Morocco or Udaipur in Rajasthan, where handicrafts are alive, not a simple memory of the past. Crafts that enchant our eyes and make us walk like in fancy, among the sellers and makers, into the shops and their backyards, searching for everything and looking for nothing, leaving the city behind and moving through corridors in trance, the rhythm of the artisans music guiding our pace and paths .
We had already spent a day strolling the market in search for crafts, we had searched and found the makers of block printed fabrics in a sort of treasure hunt. But with our eyes scanning all directions like a mad chameleon, we did not fail to notice other precious works. Among all of them, one catches our eye. It is Minakari, enamel plates, vases and chandelier brightly decorated with intricate designs.
Although the origins of enamel are uncertain, its history and delicate aesthetics are strongly rooted in Iran. Ancient Persians seem to have used the technique to colour and ornament metal surfaces fusing brilliant colours into them. They probably gave it the name of Minakari, coming from minoos – sky, to the wonderfully blue pieces of their art. The local artisans coincide with Iranian historians in that the Sassanids invented this craft and that the 14th century trade along the routes of the Mongol empire took it to faraway countries, spreading the technique across Eurasia. Less than a hundred pieces of Iranian enamel seem to have been preserved from the Safavid times (16th – 17th Century), when according to travellers accounts, Isfahan flourished in the production of enamel jewellery and other crafts. The the city was then and is still now a major production hub.
5. Isfahan market, an enamel garden
Artisan Marzieh. Rasul Karimi Handicraft, Charsoo Maghsood Bazaar, Isfahan
Marzieh lends her beauty to a crafts display in the Bazaar. With great skill and even more patience, she scratches fine shapes over the blue paint cover of an enamel plate, faintly smiling to the clients that her master brings around. The workshop, covered in blue motifs over trays, jars, vases and clocks, resembles a garden of sky shades, animated under the movement of visitors, Iranians and foreigners alike, searching for the most beautiful crafts in Isfahan.
Around a large table, Marzieh’s relatives or friends, spread piles of little plates and noisily try to choose in between geometry or flowers, which design fits best for a gift. The master, teacher and shop owner, guides the trade and describes the story of enamel craft, while Marzieh shyly smiles behind her blue plate. And the women, slowly turning more interested into the presence of a foreign man than the blue craft, chitchat, and laugh, sending secret winks to Boris whenever they have the chance. In this shop work advances at a slow pace, drawing without deadlines, in between cups of tea, sales and jokes. The idyllic picture of artisan’s work decorating the streets of Isfahan.
A few streets behind, in a darker corridor away from the buzz of the bazaar, a living chain of craftsmen spreads along the Artisan’s Alley. The craft of Minakari brings together craftsmen of many trades, and we will soon get to know that each piece must pass by many hands, at least five, before reaching ours. In Isfahan, a city that we call crafts paradise, we have the chance to shake most of these hands before buying the first little plate of enamel.
1. Coppersmiths, where it all begins
Hamid, Sadak and Ali. Artisan’s Alley, Isfahan
A dusty room with pink coloured walls is the den of Hamid, Sadak and Ali, who turn metal sheets into useful shapes. Their hands and clothes smeared with black, the grease keeps their machines in motion, an endless clock turns time into artisans creations. By art of heat and pressure, tones of copper and brass turn into plates, cups and teapots, appearing like if by art of magic from noisy mechanic hands. An endless collection of crockery is shaped daily in this tiny factory that knows no master but time. As if programmed, in a sort of metallic dance, they don’t stop for a second – sheet – pull – press – shape – and start again. But they welcome our curiosity, smile at the photographs of their rough crafts, happily posing when told that it is their everyday work that we are looking for. There would be no enamel without plates to paint on.
2. Engraving and outlining piece by piece
Erham and Ashgar, Artisan’s Alley, Isfahan
Some doors away, Erham and Ashgar proudly display the best of their etchings. They bring out their vases and plates with complex design and calligraphic art. They have great works, impressive in mastery and size, but they also show us the bulk of everyday life: outlining and engraving hundreds of pieces that accumulate in shelves. With careful precision they transform rough vases into flowers, sugar cellars into tiny chests, and carve elegant shapes on copper plates. And their work is not merely decorative, for the outlines they shape, will ensure that the enamel sticks firmly to the piece.
3. Fire to fuse metal and glass
Behind Erham’s shop, in between piles of plates and his motorbike, we spot the familiar shape of an oven that is not there to bake lavash. “Here is where we fire the pieces”. Each and every item is covered with a thick layer of white glaze as a base. Once and again, one by one they are dipped into paint and baked at 750ºC at least. Three or four times the process is repeated for every single plate and vase.Once the enamel base is ready, one can start to think about colours and designs.
And in the meantime, somewhere else, an artisan mixes pigments with a brush. Enamel paint is a vitreous mix made of mineral or chemical colours that will stick to copper, brass, silver or gold under a second wave of heat in the oven. The traditional blue glaze of enamel is made of turquoise or lapislazuli and other colours come from metal oxides like chrome for yellow, cobalt for blue, tin for white or manganese for violet but in recent years chemical dyes have made their way to the market too. Faster, cheaper, and bulks, production, even of handmade stuff cannot stay behind, and the crafts need to fill a million shelves to satiate our hunger for stuff.
4. Delicate miniature ornaments
Rasool Handicrafts, Artisan’s Alley, Isfahan
Through a thin metal ladder we climb up into one more workshop. Here, under neon light, without any other company than themselves Rasool, Hassan and Ali perform in silence the same crafty movements as Marzieh. But their hands move at a faster pace, one curve and the next in a sort of artisans trance. They produce in mass, from morning to evening, the plates, pots and vases that the market shops will sell. Their room, loaded with boxes and half-finished crafts, resembles a sort of production line.
Rassul starts the piece colouring shapes and marking the design with a wooden spike. Hassan, young in age but already old in the trade, adds details to make the piece bright. And Ali, an apprentice, gives the last touches of colour to tiny red flowers. The different kinds of patterns they paint range from imaginary gardens or the simple beauty of geometric shapes to the certain lines of Islamic ornaments that remind us of the city’s architecture. But is not the free will of the artist that decides which pattern is in vogue, for as everything else in the world of arts, there are fashions and tastes to match, and their creations respond to the will and claims of handicraft shop owners, who know the customers well.
Rasool invites us to sit and watch, to sneak around at will and even to try our hand at the craft. But he won’t sell anything to the passers-by, for their work is not their own, it belongs to the shops that hire their craft mastery and time. In grateful response to our interest, he finds an old plate with a cracked corner, that belongs to noone – a production leftover transforms into gift.
Rasool is the last artisan we visit before heading back to Marzieh’s place, where she still sits peacefully drawing arabesques on a blue plate and we will be finally be able to purchase some enamel for our travelling crafts collection. Rasool, Hassan and Ali are the last link a the large chain of craft workers that bring minakari crafts to our hands and homes, a deconstructed factory of artisans spread around the alleys of Isfahan.
This post is part of the series Snail Trails – Handmade in Asia – a roving initiative to document, collect and share crafts from the places we pass by and the stories of artisans we meet on our way East. Because there is a life behind the souvenirs and we are curious to see what it looks like. If you also want to know more click here for artisan’s and craft stories