It was not immediately apparent why, since we were entering the dark heart of the Esfahan Bazaar, far from the desert sun beating down on the square outside. With every step, the tapping of metal on metal grew louder, a percussion orchestra beating out a rhythmic symphony.
But as we turned the corner into a long hall, a blaze of reflected light dazzled my eyes. Row upon row of embossed copper vases, engraved silver trays, and gold-plated bowls sparkled and gleamed down the length of the endless hall. And all along the stone walls, men sat at workbenches, hammering, chiseling, and shaping metal into practical vessels and decorative plates, their hand tools creating the syncopated music that reverberated through the space.
We had entered the workshop of the ghalamzani artisans, practitioners of the art of Persian metal engraving. The name of this handicraft is derived from the Persian word for pen (ghalam) and the verb “to hit” (zadan).
I slid my sunglasses over my eyes, suddenly grasping the urgency of my sister-in-law's warning. Tiny chips of metal could fly through the air, too small to see yet sharp enough to do serious damage. And yet none of the men laboring so hard in this long corridor wore any type of protective goggles.
Carving designs in metal has been practiced for three millennia, but in Persia it rose to a fine art in the twelfth century, when the Turkish-speaking Seljuks (11th to 14th centuries A.D.) perfected their metalworking techniques. They fashioned many practical items from metal, mainly bronze and copper, including incense burners, mirrors, and candlesticks.
The centers of ghalamzani production in modern Iran are Kermanshah, Shiraz, Tehran, and Esfahan. And this handicraft includes several metalworking techniques, the main ones being embossing and engraving. The materials most commonly used are copper, bronze, gold, brass, and silver.
In embossing, a raised design is worked into the metal from the back using a hammer and blunt punch. A thick layer of tar is first applied to the inside of the object or the back of a flat sheet of metal to absorb the impact of the hammer and protect the material from damage. The design is traced into the back of the sheet with a tool called a nimbor. Upon completing the design, the object is heated to remove the tar. In Shiraz, the metal of choice for embossing is silver; in Isfahan, it is copper. Embossing does not involve removing metal, so there are no chips to fly through the air and invade an unprotected eye.
Isfahan artisans are recognized masters of the other technique, where the artisan uses a hammer and sharp chisel to etch designs, many of them quite intricate, into the surface of a bowl, vase, mirror frame, or other object. The artifact is first polished and the pattern applied (often using a piece of perforated paper and rubbing coal dust over the holes). The engraver etches the positive elements of the motif into the metal and leaves the negative elements as raised areas.
The day we visited the ghalamzani workshop at the bazaar, I learned that my sister-in-law’s warning to protect my eyes came from experience. She worked as an eye surgeon at a charity hospital in Isfahan, and every day ghalamzani artisans traipsed through her examining room, needing her to remove tiny slivers of metal from their eyes.
Two pieces of ghalamzani hang on my wall, intricately engraved plates with interlinked geometric patterns chiseled into a nickel alloy. When I look at them and admire the workmanship, I try not to think of the high price they may have demanded from their creator: the loss of his precious eyesight.