Historically the origins of Khatam-kar are another of the mysteries of Persian art crafts. To Ustad Muhammad Khalil Golriz, perhaps the greatest of the khatam craftsmen, who dominated the art from the opening of the Pahlavi era until his death in 1973, the technique was introduced from China during the Mongol dominion in the fourteenth century. Inlay-carving out a design a wooden ground and setting in fitted pieces of other wood or material-has been known in the Near East since earliest times. But marquetry- a veneering process in which small pieces are set down on a base and glued or nailed, of which khatam is specialized type-is not of great. In Europe the oldest samples are almost contemporary with the oldest in Iran. In Italy certosina, minute pieces of bone, ivory and wood, dyed or natural, combined in designs on a thin diaper of wood and inlaid as a unit, dates to the fourteenth century. A century later there is intarsia, pictorial assemblages similar to the work on the preceding pages.
In Persia in the fourteenth century wood decoration developed “a geometrical linear system wherein complex entrelacs are built up by intersecting polygons” which Bronstein believes stemmed from Hellenistic antecedents, though also known in Quter Iran in Khotan in the third to eighth centuries. By the fourteenth century this technique had developed into the “pure geometry” of such as the ceiling of the main ivan in the Masjed-i Jami’ ‘ Atiq of Shiraz, made of minute intermeshed polygons of wood nailed on. The aesthetic relates to the contemporary brick and faience decoration of the Mausoleum of Uljaitu in Sultaniyeh and the Khanaqah of Natanz. Khatam is first mentioned by Dowlat Shah in his Lives of the poets, speaking of Sultan Ahmad ben Avi’ ca. 1382, “considered a master in several branches of art [including] khatam bandi.” In six weeks in 1396(A.H.798) Timur built his amazing palace of Dilkusha in Samarqand with khatam doors, probably resembling those in his slightly later tomb , ca. 1405. To Bronstein this represents a “ continuity of style fully developed by Timurids.” The work in the Shiraz mosque may well be older, as the building dates to the tenth century.
Other fine old examples are the walnut doors overlaid with bone and various woods, signed by the artist Habib Allah, A.H. 999 (1591), now in the Staatliche museum, Berlin; the panel from Bukhara in the Victoria and Albert Museum with polygonal panels juxtaposed with floral ornament; and the cedar wood minbar in the Masjed-i Lamban, Isfahan, with various polygons and silver detail, dated A.H 1114(1702).
The early developments in Khotan and flowering in the Timurid east may the origins of the idea that khatam came from China. Little else supports it. The tradition also says the Chinese original was simple, that what we know today as khatam was the Persian development. Whatever the origins, the miniscule mosaic marquetry prospered in Safavid times as well as in Zand in Isfahan and Shiraz. Decline set in under the Qajars when Isfahan out of an almost religious devotion to art as a way to salvation.
In 1811 Sir William Ouseley visited Isfahan and wrote lauding the “minute...mosaick-work” in which “on inequality remains among the hundreds or thousands of the component articles,” and that it “ensured considerable profit to many artists of Shiraz and Isfahan.” But by 1877 the Persian author of the Geograph of Isfahan records: “ The inlaid works were highly popular in old times and khatam worked on old boxes, book racks, chairs, mirror frames, doors of rooms and mausolea involved a lotofhard work and skill, but these old objects are collected and taken from Iran and foreigners are ever searching for and buying them. The number of people engaged in the craft are now greatly reduced and the low quality of the present product is a reflection of poor sales for there are buyers only in the villages. A small quantity is exported to Rome and Istanbul.” By the end of the century the craft had died out in Isfahan and was exclusive to Shiraz.
The turning point came after the lecture to Reza Shah by Pope in 1926. Commander of the First Army, Major General Ayrom, ordered a desk and set of armchairs from Muhammad Khalil Golriz. Reza Shah soon after ordered a plinth in Saadabad palace done in khatam. The Exhibition of Iranian products inaugurating Avenue Sepah showed khatam to acclaim.
With the construction of the Marble Palace in 1934, khatam was ordered for framing in the mirror salon and for the entire royal study. Ustad Muhammad Husayn Sanie Khatam brought up from Shiraz Gholam Husayn Golriz, Muhammad Malek Muhammadi, Ali Babvieh, Haj Muhammad Sanie Khatam and ali Akbar Javanmardi. Working at unheard of generous rates per square meter, but giving back even more than they received, the artists drove themselves to peaks of accomplishment creating the finest khatam mosaic ever seen. After a year it became evident that if the quality were maintained the mirror room would take a decade for the trim alone and the office would take at least a century. The workers were changed over to day wages, for the piecework rate penalized their good intentions. During this period Ustad Muhammad Khalil Golriz was called up from Shiraz to enlarge the crew to eight masters and eighty workers, including the five from the Golriz family. Jali now fifty-five, sixth-generation head of the family, was a twelve-year-old apprentice. In about five years he will be joined by his grandson, the eighth generation of khatam Golriz.
The Marble Palace was completed in 1937, and the Shiraz artists dispersed. Sanie remained in Tehran, there the family maintains a shop on Manuchehri. Golriz moved to Isfahan to re-establish the craft there and teach at the Honarestan for thirty-six years, so that today there are some fifty masters, each with an atelier, and over three hundred skilled workers in the city.His son maintain his atelier on Chahar Bagh.
The design for the khatam in the Marble Palace was adapted from the doors between the Royal Bazaar and the Madraseh Madar-i Shah, now restored by Golriz. The new massive wooden doors to the recently reopened Royal Bazaar made of chenar (plane tree) wood took six mounths to inlay with khatam. The new parliament building has a khatam room by Ustad Ali Nemat of the Honarhaye Ziba(fine art) work shop.
The harder-than steel ebony wood of old is now rarely used, jujube replacing it. For green , camel bone used to be immersed in dye for six months; now orangewood is dipped for half an hour in chemical dye. Mechanization of transport has helped marketing, but hurt the material supply as camels are now so rare that the bone is available only for quality khatam, the cheaper using German compressed Galalite C.R. New grinding and sanding machinery promises to reduce the hard labor of hand filing the tiny polygonal strips of bone, wood or metal that fit together to make the starlike larger forms- the best work having some forty bits per square centimetre- but there has been little real success in getting the right machinery. Better cold glues and shellacs make the material more durable and easier to transport to other climes. The art craft thrives again as it has not since early Safavid times, thanks to the initial patronage of the late Reza Shah, and looks forward to even improved work and wider acceptance.