The metalwares and arms produced between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries in the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires display a number of common characteristics. This is particularly true of Persian and Indian productions, which are often of comparable shape and decoration.
However certain alloys or surface treatments only exist in one region, such as a type of zinc-based metal alloy inlaid with gold, silver or copper known as bidri and produced in India, and mercury-gilded copper alloy objects called tombak, made in the Ottoman provinces.
One striking feature is common to the three empires: all witnessed the disappearance of copper alloy objects inlaid with precious metals (silver and gold) during the first decades of the sixteenth century. The silver and gold inlays on Persian and Indian portable objects were replaced by colored pastes, mainly black, standing out against the golden yellow or reddish brown metal background. The ornamental repertory displays vegetal and calligraphic, rather than figural compositions.
Gold and silver continued to be used on arms and armors made from iron alloy with the development of damascening techniques (metal inlay) in all three empires.
The torch-stands, ewers and bath-pails produced in India and Iran are in general molded and very similar in shape and decoration. The vegetal designs and the composition of the decoration are reminiscent of the arts of the book (book-bindings and illuminations). This common taste and ornamental repertoire are clearly derived from the metalwork produced during the Timurid period, as well as from models created by Persian craftsmen and artists working at the Mughal court during the sixteenth century, and local Indian metal production, which remains little known today.
A few rare objects bearing the inscribed name of an identified personage, or the reference to the New Julfa (Armenian quarter at Isfahan), can be linked to production centers in western Iran. The objects produced there are characterized by inlaid compositions adhering to the surface, which is finely engraved with regular and tightly aligned oblique strokes. Nevertheless we have no precise references for such centers. In contrast, the workshops situated further east between Khurasan and the Punjab are better attested. The great center of Herat almost certainly continued to produce metals after the conquest of Khurasan by the Safavids. We know from the inscription on the torch-stand now in Mashhad (Iran) that during the Mughal period, the capital city of Lahore in north-western India was a center for the production of metalwares. It is also attested as a production center for astrolabes and globes in the seventeenth century. Productions from workshops operating in eastern Iran and in north-western India are characterized by their relative thickness compared with those from western Iran, as well as by their background hatchings, which are less regular, more widely separated, sometimes leading off in different directions or cross-hatched.
Arms and armor produced in the Persian and Mughal empires are often very similar in shape and style. The same chahar aina or “four mirrors” armor, consisting in four metal plates (back, front and sides) was used in both empires, as was the same kind of dome-shaped helmet with a camail. The same can be said of the saddle-axes or tabarzin. It is often their decorative style which enables us to attribute these armors. In contrast, certain types of arms were more specific to a particular region, such as the talwar, a saber only known to have been used in Mughal India.
The term bidri comes from the name of the town of Bidar in the Deccan. The first texts mentioning Bidar as a production center for bidri date from the beginning of the eighteenth century, but the first known objects date back to the early seventeenth century. To the present day, the main production centers for bidri have been in the Deccan, but some also operate in Gujarat and the Rajasthan. The most usual objects made in bidri are huqqa bases and betel boxes, but also bowls, ewers, and carpet weights. Bidri wares are obtained by casting objects in an alloy made predominantly from zinc (more than 87%), with additional lead, copper and tin. It would seem that the isolation of zinc as a metal was achieved in India between the fourteenth and fifteenth century, much earlier than in Europe, where it was not mastered until the eighteenth century. Once the object has been extracted from the mold, the surface is polished, then blackened with a solution of copper sulfate. The motifs are then cut into the surface and inlaid with precious metal plate or wire (silver and much more rarely gold) or copper alloys (brass). The object is rubbed with a paste consisting of ammonium chloride, potassium nitrate, sodium chloride, copper sulfate and mud. This mixture blackens the alloy without affecting the inlay. The paste is then wiped off and the object washed and rubbed with oil.
At first the inlaid decoration consisted essentially of architectural designs or figural scenes, but from the early eighteenth century vegetal decoration predominated.
Tombak wares were only produced in the Ottoman Empire. The term refers to copper or copper alloy objects (such as brass) gilded using the mercury gilding technique. The word tombak may derive from the term tambaga, meaning copper in Malay.
The copper surface was cleaned, first with acid then water. An amalgam of one part gold to six parts mercury was brushed onto the surface. The mercury evaporated away when the object was fired.
Numerous tombak objects have come down to us: candlesticks, lamps and perfume-braziers, but also basins, ewers, and other water receptacles. They can be dated to between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. They generally display no decoration, but may be adorned with vegetal motifs. They are usually fashioned by hammering, a technique which makes possible the production of a wide range of shapes and surface treatments; eighteenth and nineteenth century tombak wares were frequently crafted in open work and worked in repoussé. A final group of tombak wares consists of those decorated in polychrome enamel.