Whether it’s a ceramic vase, a silver cigarette case, or an inlaid copper bowl, Persian decorative objects are famous for their botanical and geometric patterns and richly ornamental calligraphy. Often these elements are intricately entwined, producing arabesques that appear to repeat endlessly, suggesting both the human form bent in prayer and the infiniteness of the universe—and, by extension, God.
Though the word “Persia” is often used to describe the present-day Iran, historically, Persian empires have extended west to Libya, north to Turkey, and east to Pakistan. Even when Persia was vanquished, as it was by Turkish armies in the 11th century, Persian customs, as well as the language itself, had profound influences on their conquerors. Thus, Persian decorative styles and motifs, including leaves, pomegranates, and peacocks, found their way onto objects far beyond the modern borders of Iran. Of course, the opposite is also true, especially when it comes to Chinese influences, as Persia and China were trading with each other as early as the 2nd century BC, when the first contacts between the two empires were made via what would become known as the Silk Road.
After the establishment of Islam in the 7th century, the predominance of motifs taken from the natural world were encouraged by the aesthetics of the new religious order, which frowned on figuration, lest it be mistaken for idolatry. Centuries later, as the Renaissance elevated the importance of paintings in the West, decorative objects such as blown glass, thrown pottery, rugs, textiles, and metalware remained the primary conveyances for the highest forms of Persian art.
Persian and Middle-Eastern ceramics are a particularly interesting story. In the 9th century, a type of pottery known as fritware first appeared in Iraq. Subsequently perfected in Egypt, fritware was an attempt to mimic the finest porcelain being produced in China. To achieve the porcelain effect, fritware included ground glass or silica (the frit) in the blond clay body, plus a tin-based glaze to add stability and hardness to the finished pieces. By the 13th century, the Persian town of Kashan was a center for this ware, and by the 16th century, frit techniques had spread to the Turkish city of Iznik, where copies of much-admired blue-and-white Chinese porcelain were produced.
A parallel type of ceramics was lustreware (sometimes spelled “lusterware”), which made use of bird, animal, and floral motifs. Lustreware would find its way from Persia to Spain and, eventually, Staffordshire, England. But some techniques were more particular to Persia and Turkey, such as the dry cord, or cuerda seca, technique, in which wax would be used to separate different glaze colors, leaving behind dark unglazed lines. You can see this technique most famously in the muqarnas, which are the stalactite-like decorations found in entryways and ceilings of palaces of buildings from Istanbul to Tehran.
Meanwhile, Persian jewelers and their clients had a fondness for gold that had been worked using repousse and chasing techniques. Filigree was a favorite style, rubies and emeralds were popular stones, and Persian enamelwork would prove an inspiration to French jewelers in the 19th century. In turn, European painting and lacquerware techniques appropriated from Japan would inspire 18th-century Persian boxes made for pens and other everyday items.
Cross-pollination also occurred in brass objects—from candlesticks to lamps—which were inlaid with silver, while other objects were enameled, suggesting treatments similar to cloisonne. Some of the most collected metalwork is from the Mamluk period (1250-1517) and the years of the Mamluk revival (1878-1914)—pieces from the Mamluk revival are often imprecisely referred to as Cairoware.