Pen Box (Qalamdan)

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Pen Box (Qalamdan)

India, Gujarat, Ahmedabad region, circa 1575-1625
Furnishings; Accessories
Wood overlaid with mother-of-pearl in lac; Drawer: wood with red, gold, and black paint
2 1/2 × 13 5/8 × 3 in. (6.35 × 34.61 × 7.62 cm)
The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky (M.73.5.340)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

This rectangular pen box with an inner side drawer is likely made of sisham wood (dalbergia sissoo). It is adorned with small overlaid pieces of iridescent mother-of-pearl or nacre, the shiny secreted coating found on pearls and some mollusk shells, which are adhered with lac or mastic, a lacquerlike resinous ground. The scintillating mother-of-pearl fragments are arranged in concentric registers in a dense foliated arabesque featuring a scrolling vine accentuated with split palmettes set against a background of comma-shaped leaves and geometric borders. The innermost register of the top and sides has horizontal hexagons with Persian poetry written in nasta’liq script. The verses are a religious invocation to Allah (on the top), and a celebration of the aesthetic flavor of the awe-inspiring calligraphy. (Translation by Shadi Shafiei.) Mother-of-pearl ornamentation was used on a wide variety of sumptuous ceremonial and dining vessels; writing desks, pen boxes, cabinets, and other types of furniture; and ornate weapons. Principally produced in the modern Indian state of Gujarat in western India and in the Sindh region of present-day Pakistan, these distinctive luxury goods were made primarily as export ware for the international maritime market with Portugal, Ottoman Turkey, and the Middle East in the late 16th and 17th centuries. There were also prized as court presentation items in the Mughal Empire, and often praised in contemporaneous European travel accounts.


  • Pal, Pratapaditya, ed.  Islamic Art:  The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1973.