15 October - 12 December 2003
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The Persian Steel Industry
The steel manufacturing concerns of Iran were not always close to the centres for the production of the metal itself. At times, these centres themselves were a long way from the natural deposits of iron. The ingots were objects of a sizeable trade, and could have been imported from, say, India.
The transformation of steel into objects and tools was controlled by guilds, with each town having its own speciality. From the 17th century onwards, Isfahan had the most complete range of iron and steel trade, as shown in the listing of guilds transmitted by European travellers to Iran. These records enumerate a wide range of products being produced in Isfahan. Working with steel requires a variety of skills, thus leading to a hierarchy of tasks—from the shaping and fashioning, to the conception and execution of embellishments. This activity occurred primarily in family businesses where each member had his particular expertise. Thanks to the signatures found on numerous pieces, we know today that successive generations were active in production at these family enterprises. These businesses did also resort to the employment of apprentices from outside the family unit. The apprentices could subsequently accede to the status of khalifa or assistant to the master, and later even to that of ustad or master. During the Safavid and the Qajar periods, accession to the rank of ustad had to be approved by the masters of the guild to whom a 'masterpiece' by the artisan was presented. The newly elected member would then receive a shawl or a belt during a ceremony.