Woodworking artisans across the globe have been developing and perfecting decorative inlay techniques for well over a thousand years. Among the spectrum of styles, one particularly interesting technique is called khatam (or khatam-kari, with khatam meaning “to seal” and kari meaning “work,” essentially the art of sealing).
Developed in the ancient Persian Empire, khatam-kari gained popularity in the 16th century. This unique form of marquetry (applying veneer patterns to a surface) features signature tiny geometric designs made of wood, metal, and bone. Artisans use khatam to lend a lavish look to anything from boxes (like the one pictured above) to lamps, vases, tables, chairs, picture frames, chess sets, and more. The tinier the design, the more skill involved to create it and the higher price it can fetch in the handmade art marketplace.
The look and patterning of khatam kari is directly linked to the technique used to create it. Thin rods of wood, bone, and metal are cut to roughly 2mm (or less) thick and 30cm long, then bound together, first with string and then with glue. The desired pattern becomes visible by looking at one end of the bundle, from which 1mm slices are cut. The slices are then arranged and adhered on the surface to be adorned. In the finished product, there may be upwards of 250 pieces to each cubic centimeter!
Marquetry and Khatam
Traditional marquetry typically takes the form of either larger geometric patterns like this one by Heritage Inlay Design:
Or “drawings” of objects, like these flowers by LaserForge Designs:
In contrast, khatam kari strictly takes the form of geometries based on the simple triangle shape. Patterns are then created from this building block, as you can see in this illustrative graphic:
Here’s a closeup of one of the classic patterns:
And another couple of variations using different materials and colors:
Different patterns may even harmoniously appear alongside one another:
There’s a wide variety of different types of wood employed, each revered for a particular color or hue. Khatamkars (as the artisans are known) may use cypress, teak, ebony, rose, betel, walnut, logwood, jujube, pistachio, orange, or aspen. The metals used include brass, aluminum, gold, and silver. The bone is traditionally camel, but cow bones are also used in modern times.
Art blogger Maryam Moghaddas offers a wonderful in-depth piece on khatam, wherein she breaks down the basic technique. Here’s a synopsis.
Step 1: Cut the material rods.
Step 2: Shape the rods into triangles.
Step 3: Design the basic pattern.
Step 4: Put the rods together to create your basic pattern.
Step 5: Bind the rods with string and glue, and press together for 24 hours.
Step 6: Slice 1mm layers off the glued prisms.
Step 7: Assemble the thin layers on the surface to be applied, and glue.
Step 8: Finely sand to make surface as smooth as possible.
Step 9: Oil and polish to a shine, then apply lacquer.
This video helps visualize the process, set to the international language of music:
There’s also a two-part series that breaks down the process in more detail for those who want to take a deep dive:
There’s no shortage of handmade shops in Iran, as artisan creations and traditional crafts are still highly revered throughout the culture. It’s mind-blowing to think of the countless hours spent making one khatam-encrusted piece, and yet the handmade stores have piles of them. Here are a few shots from shops I visited:
Yours truly (on the right) with my cousin in front of a wall of khatam:
One shop actually had the raw material prism rods and thin veneers on hand to illustrate the process and effort that goes into each one of these creations:
Gallery of Khatam Kari