Several years ago, when I was looking for Oriental carpets to furnish my three-story Brooklyn (N.Y.) brownstone, a friend took me to a merchant he knew in upstate New York. I bought three gorgeous rugs, all of them made in India.
More recently my husband Ken and I decided we needed four more rugs for the house: one for our bedroom, one for the living room, and one each for the two staircase landings. This time, however, we were planning a family vacation to India and thought it would be fun to buy at the source. In December we traveled to north-central India, a major rug-production center. Our challenge was to find rugs of higher quality and lower price than we could get in New York. To see how we fared, I lined up a carpet expert back home to evaluate my finds when we returned.
We began our hunt in the city of Jaipur, where Nand Kishor Chaudhary, owner of Jaipur Carpets (email@example.com), relies on a network of weavers in villages throughout the state of Rajasthan to produce the rugs he sells, mostly for export. Designs are computer-generated versions of classical patterns, in the reds, blues, greens, and golds that appeal to Western tastes.
We tracked Chaudhary down through a photo credit in the book Indian Carpets, by AshaRani Mathur, which we bought in a hotel gift shop. (After two rug authorities I had consulted in the U.S. refused to share their sources, I decided to scout out places once I got to India.) Chaudhary offered the perfect solution to our quest for runners to fit two irregularly shaped staircase landings: custom-made rugs, one a classic Jaipur design with flowers and medallions and the other in what looks like an American Arts and Crafts style.
COMING TO TERMS
Prices, based on the tightness of the weave, were $15 per square foot for the first rug, which had 140 knots per inch, and $10 per square foot for the second, which had 81 knots per inch. The total tab, to cover approximately 64 square feet of floor, was $937. The rugs would take about five months to weave. (Although the knot counts were relatively low, we were sold on the rugs' good-quality wool, which is durable enough for high-traffic areas, and the fact they were well-priced for nonstandard sizes.)
Although bargaining is part of the Indian culture, Chaudhary wouldn't budge on price. Still, he agreed to terms that were more important to us: payment by credit card, no charge until the rugs arrived in the Atlanta store his daughter runs, free shipping, and the right to return the rugs to Atlanta for any reason (at our expense) for a full refund.
When we later shopped for rugs in Delhi, I compared the prices at Jaipur Carpets with those at Obeetee, a store our hotel recommended. The price for similar custom-made runners was three times as much as we paid. The lesson: Don't automatically go to places your hotel sends you.
We visited Gulam Mohidin & Son, another lead from Mathur's book, in a residential Delhi neighborhood (firstname.lastname@example.org). Mohomad Amin, a third-generation dealer who runs the business with his daughter, Sarvat, rolled out some choice items from his collection of beautiful but threadbare old carpets. These pieces were not for sale; Amin uses them as prototypes for carpets he has made in Kashmir. Each rug had a story. One was acquired from a widow who left it in the attic of her Bombay house, where it was damaged by a monsoon. Another was saved from fire at the company's Srinagar headquarters when Amin's father heaved it out a window into the Jhelum River.
For our bedroom we came away with a finely woven (342 knots per inch) 4-ft. by 6-ft. garden design with a center field of four birds perched among the branches of a tree ($1,200). We also bought a 4-ft. by 6-ft. Kashan, a floral-medallion design named for a city in what was once Persia, that matched our living room (360 knots per inch, $1,100). Here, too, the dealer flatly refused to negotiate prices.
Still hoping to find at least one older rug, we went to Galleria June 1st (email@example.com), whose ad we spotted in the monthly Delhi Complete City Guide and Magazine. Harash Talwar, a partner in the business, enlightened us about the widespread practice of washing new rugs with acid, scrubbing them with sandstone, and dying the fringes with tea to make them look old. After Talwar told us about his business performing this service for tourist shops, we looked extra closely at the two "old" carpets (he refused to estimate their age) we bought from him.
When we got home, we asked Sam Noori, a carpet consultant and dealer with Zara Rugs Gallery in East Hanover, N.J. (www.zararugs.com), to critique our haul. Without telling him what we paid for any of our purchases, we asked him to appraise their quality and attach a U.S. retail price to each. Noori praised the weaving in the rugs from Galleria June 1st, but he questioned their age. A 5-ft. by 8-ft. geometric tribal design -- an added purchase we made for our son's room ($700) -- was "a good copy of an old rug," he said. The weave was too tight for it to be more than five years old, and without any signs of repair, it looked "too perfect." When he estimated the price at $1,000, we breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
Noori hesitated over another purchase from Gallery June 1st, a 4-ft. by 6-ft. Kashan with a teardrop center medallion. It seemed to have been rebound in spots where the edges of an old rug might have frayed. On the other hand, what we took to be abrash -- shading in old or tribal carpets that results from the way different wools absorb the dye -- might just be the result of acid wash applied vigorously to the red center field, Noori said. While he couldn't tell whether the rug was really old, he priced it at $500 (exactly what we paid).
Although Noori admired the tight weave, softness, wool, and durability of the rugs from Gulam Mohidin, it seems we paid dearly for the privilege of seeing Amin's collection and listening to his stories -- about double what the reproductions were worth. But we're still convinced we could not have found comparable rugs in New York for the prices Noori put on them.
Where did we net out? Buying carpets in India was no bargain, but we brought home some beautiful souvenirs, didn't make a huge investment, and thoroughly enjoyed the chase.
By Deborah L. Jacobs