On a recent visit to Muttrah Souk, intricately carved wooden jewellery boxes caught my eye. Decorated with typically Islamic geometric patterns and inlaid with shell and bone, the impossibly detailed designs made me wonder about the skill of the artisans and the amount of time and effort that must have gone into creating them.
It was interesting to learn that the history of inlay work is very old. As with most ancient handicrafts, the origin of Marquetry has multiple versions. According to some, the art has Islamic origins. Others point to evidence suggesting that the Egyptians used inlays from early times to decorate items of daily use like cups, bowls and lamps. One theory even claims that marquetry has its beginnings in ancient Chinese civilization.
Interestingly though, the earliest examples are found on Sumerian tombstones that date as far back as 4000 B.C. Archaeologists have also unearthed remarkable items from the city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia including a limestone bowl with pieces of embedded shell dating to 3,000 B.C. Another fascinating discovery was a small casket with beautifully inlaid ivory set in bitumen to represent scenes from the daily life of both royalty and commoners.
The evolution of inlay through the ages, and the amazing variety of techniques and materials is quite remarkable. Inlay work has captured the imagination of people right from the Copper and Bronze ages, to the Baroque and Renaissance periods. Even today, the art of Marquetry holds an almost timeless appeal. Around the 15th century artisans began using it for decorating the doors and windows of mosques, and palaces. The craft reached its peak in Anatolia during the reign of the Seljuks and Ottomans.
Today, there are only a small number of artisans, adept at this craft. It takes more than 2 to 3 days to make a small jewel box with inlay in a traditional way. Intricate designs are outlined on the surface to be decorated with inlay, usually wood, and marked with a hard point. Niches are carved out on these spaces to a depth of 2 or 3 millimetres. These can be cut by hand for a cruder effect, or laser cut to achieve minute detail. Carving niches requires great skill and experience as they should be perfect beds for the inlay. Usually, walnut wood is used as a base as it does not become brittle upon carving and provides a great contrast to the inlays.
The same design is then used as reference to create the inlay. Expert artisans meticulously measure, cut and insert pieces of various materials like wood, metal, ivory, camel bone, shells and even pearls into the niches on the base to create impossibly detailed designs. A delicate saw called a coping saw is used for this. The final task involves smoothening and polishing the surface to reveal a one of a kind piece of art.
In Oman, a number of artisans recently received specialised training organized by the Craft Industries Directorate at PACI in cooperation with Oman Shipping Company. Around 20 women were trained to use modern techniques to equip them with the skills required to manage small projects in handicrafts. Trainees were given the basics of forming shells and synthesizing them with other crafts.
During the workshop, held at Quriyat, Abalone shells were used, which is considered the best type of shells exported from Oman and used to decorate wood products and furniture. Typically, artisans create bowls, trays, jewel boxes, and small pieces of furniture using special tools and shell inlay. Beautiful inlayed boxes and trays can be purchased from stores like the ones at Muttrah Souk. They can be used as functional items for daily use, or as exotic gifts.
Lovingly handcrafted, each piece is beautiful and one of a kind. Hopefully, this ancient craft, which has been admired and loved by myriad cultures across the world, will survive in the hearts and homes of those who value it.