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Metalsmiths and their intricate work have long been an important part of everyday life in Uzbekistan. Traditionally, the most common technique was chasing (or embossing) copper. This is an extremely complex and time-consuming method but the result is stunning – a smooth piece that catches the light as you turn it in your hand and watch the elaborate design come to life.

Early development

The main schools of metalworking emerged here during Mongolian rule when copper chasing took its place alongside other urban crafts. Bukhara, Khiva, Kokand, Samarkand, Karshi, Shahrisabz and Tashkent soon established themselves as leading centres.

The metalsmiths honed their skills as they passed them on from generation to generation, and by the early 1800s, craftsmen here were producing well-proportioned pieces noted for the fluidity and expressiveness of both pattern and form. Chased copper items were no longer seen as simple, mundane utensils but acted as status symbols, proudly displayed in the home.

Technique

Several experienced masters would pool their skills to create each copper piece. First, the coppersmith, known as misgar, would manufacture the metal from red or yellow copper. Then the metal caster, or rikhtagar, would pour the molten copper into moulds to form different shapes for locks, spouts, hinges, etc. Finally, the chaser, known as nakkoshzarbi, would decorate the piece, embossing and engraving it with intricate, distinctive designs. Each master brought his own unique talent to the craft: coppersmiths and metal casters would produce a smooth, perfectly-proportioned item which the chasers, after turning the piece carefully and considering it from all angles, would then decorate with ornate patterns.

Various technique developed, including, engraving, openwork carving, hammering stamps known as Chekma, using latticework known as katak, and hatch working known as Kesma. They also used methods such as deep carving (Kandakori), shallow carving (Chizma), cut-out carving (Shabaka), and inlay (although rare) with stones and wires.
The most popular motifs in Uzbek metalwork are plant, geometric and zoomorphic patterns, but astral motifs, calligraphy and images of everyday objects are also important. Plant motifs, however, take pride of place. Flowers, leaves and curling stems weave in and out, filling both the borders and centre of the compositions with intricate ornaments. The floral patterns are quite realistic, and you can easily recognise certain plants and flowers, such as almonds, tulips, peppers and bushes. Geometric patterns often reflect architectural structures such as arches while zoomorphic motifs (the eyes of a nightingale, a ram’s horn, fish scales or butterflies for example) are still generally reserved for border décor. Sometimes the technique dictates the design, but sometimes the design dictates the technique.

Regional variations

Ferghana

Metalwork from the Ferghana region deserves a special mention as it was here that the famous Kokand school instigated its fine floral designs. The patterning is so intricate here that it is simply impossible to emboss the designs deeply, and that means you can easily recognise the work of Kokand masters because it is so detailed and shallow. In fact, the craftsmen here developed a special technique of metal carving known as pardoz and Kokand masters were the first to introduce new themes and motifs into their designs – people, mythical beasts, and palaces.

 

Tashkent

Plant motifs used here tend to be less refined, featuring bolder elements uncluttered by small details. Artisans from Tashkent often drew inspiration from everyday items so patterns of fans, cradles and tambourines are common here.

 

Bukhara

Bukhara metal carving is known for its traditional simplicity and rigorous design. Local masters applied the technique of deep embossing while the background was shaded using hatch work. Decorative patterns were larger than those of Kokand and more elegant than those of Tashkent. Calligraphy appears alongside floral designs, and local craftsmen later introduced images of well-known folktale characters, too.

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Use of colour

Metalworkers in Karshi and Shahrisabz moved away from plain chasing and embellished their pieces with eye-catching medallions decorated with turquoise and glass. The traditional floral patterns here are very simple but the abundant use of colour makes Karshi metalwork quite remarkable.

Artisans of the Khiva school were also fond of colour. Here, rich floral decorations as well as medallions and latticework create complex configurations set off against black and red varnishes. Smooth, deep carvings are characteristic of pieces from Khiva.

Today

The art of metal working is flourishing again in Uzbekistan. Chisel and hammer are once again flashing in cities such as Shahrisabz, Kokand, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva, and the centuries-old system of apprenticeship, now revived, ensures these valuable skills pass on from generation to generation. Modern carvers of traditional chasing are branching out, creating innovative interior design pieces for mosques and madrasahs as well as for traditional-style restaurants. Today’s artisans are successfully bringing this ancient craft into the 21st century by including contemporary patterns and motifs, while inlay work with semi-precious stones gives a new, colourful element to these exquisite pieces.