Economy, Domestic Economy

The Resurgence of Persian Carpet

The Resurgence of Persian CarpetThe Resurgence of Persian Carpet

The earthy smell of silk and wool fills a showroom piled with thousands of hand-woven rugs. It is a familiar scent, one that links this shop in LA’s Westwood neighborhood to Tehran’s bazaars 8,000 miles away.

Some of the carpets, dyed with natural ingredients such as walnut skins, pomegranate and acorn cups, took 10 years and five people to make, store owner Alex Helmi told the US newspaper Star Tribune.

Among his favorite pieces is a 9-foot ivory rug commissioned to honor the Persian poet Ferdowsi. Archers ride on horseback across the carpet, their arrows aimed at deer frolicking through the silken forest.

For Helmi, the rug is a connection to his homeland and also to his cultural roots.

“We have been doing this for thousands of years,” he said. “This is part of our history.”

But the Persian rug market has been a casualty of years of economic sanctions against Iran.

A 2010 embargo on Iranian-made rugs meant tough times for sellers such as Helmi.

This summer’s landmark international nuclear agreement has paved the way for importing rugs once again in what was once Iran’s largest foreign market. “This is an art, not just an industry,” Helmi said. “To me, sanctioning an art is like saying don’t bring French paintings to America.”

As a child in Tehran, Joseph Tizabi grew up playing with toys on rugs embroidered with silk flowers.

“We’ve had Persian rugs in our house all my life,” he said as he unfurled a mustard-and-magenta rug in his Westwood living room.

When the supply of rugs dwindled and prices shot up during the embargo, many customers stopped buying high-end Persian rugs. But for Tizabi, their connection to his homeland and childhood was too strong to stay away.

The beauty of the rugs lies in “the talent and experience passed generation by generation,” said Tizabi, 57.

For affluent collectors like Tizabi, the embargo has been a mixed bag. It added value to the Persian rugs they own, but they eagerly await its end so they can add to collections.

“If you collect them, you don’t buy them for the value going up,” Tizabi said. “You buy it for the enjoyment of it.”

He and his wife never sell their rugs, he said, although their collection is worth tens of thousands of dollars.

“This is part of our being,” he said. “Any Persian house you go in, they’ll have one. It’s something that’s within us.”

At Tousi Rugs in Westwood, Adel Tousi admired a threadbare silk carpet nearly 300 years old.

“My grandfather bought it from a collector about 55 years ago,” Tousi said.

His family has been in the Persian rug industry for five generations.

“It’s all I know,” said Tousi, 32.

At the height of their business, Tousi’s father would import hundreds—sometimes thousands—of rugs at a time, filling large shipping containers to the brim.

Apart from oil, Persian carpets suffered the most from sanctions. Before the embargo, the US made up one-fifth of Iran’s carpet exports.

More than 5,000 tons of hand-woven carpets worth $330 million were exported last Iranian year, indicating a 2.7% increase in value compared to a year before.

“The increase is a welcome sign,” said Hamid Kargar, the head of Iran’s National Carpet Center, adding that exports are expected to rise much higher to $500 million a year, once sanctions are lifted, which is widely expected to happen by early 2016.

For sellers, the embargo has meant fewer sales, but it has also meant that those Persian rugs that do sell can fetch a much higher price.

Like many dealers hurt by the sanctions, the Tousis have resorted to selling cheaper Middle Eastern rugs in order to stay afloat.