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    In describing his profound spiritual experiences, the 12th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi exclaimed, "I can't stop pointing to the beauty. Every moment and place says, 'Put this design in your carpet!'" It is easy to see where the mystic was coming from. The beauty and craftsmanship of handmade Oriental rugs, with their rich colors and historical patterns, seem inspired by the divine. The ancient tradition dates back to the fifth century BC, and in countries such as Iran, it holds such cultural significance that even today high-quality carpets are considered an Iranian's best investment.
    All this prestige can make buying one a bit intimidating. How much should you spend? What are the elements of a fine Oriental rug? And how do you choose a reputable dealer? To find out, we turned to San Jose rug specialists Nasser and Peter Gollestani. The Gollestanis own and operate Martinous Oriental Rugs, a rug cleaning business. Nasser Gollestani has more than 30 years of experience buying, selling and collecting antique, handmade and modern Oriental rugs. His prized possession is a 150-year-old Farahan Sarouk rug - a reference to fabled carpets made in the village of Sarouk in Iran's Farahan District.

    Q: What countries produce fine rugs?
    Nasser: The best handmade rugs, antique or new, come from Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan in Iran. Turkey and China also produce quality rugs. Afghanistan makes rugs, but it is limited in its designs. Recently, India and Pakistan have been making good rugs, but they don't have the long history.

    Q: What fabrics should you look for?
    Nasser: Most fine rugs are made from wool or a combination of wool, silk, and cotton. Personally, I think wool rugs are easier to maintain. And if it's a good-quality wool and well made, it will probably last longer and look shinier than a silk rug. Today, only 5 to 10 percent of rugs are still made from 100 percent silk.

    Q: What are the elements of quality to look for when selecting a rug?
    Nasser: First, you want to make sure the rug was made properly. Look at the tightness of the weave on the back of the rug. The more knots you see, the more labor was put into the rug. In terms of durability and longevity, you want a tight weave. Typically, a high-quality rug has at least 500 knots per square inch. Next, ask about the quality of the dyeing process. The best rugs are made using vegetable dyes from flowers and the skins of walnuts or pomegranates. When processed properly, they are much stronger than chemical dyes. The most important part of the dyeing process is making sure that the colored yarn is rinsed long enough to get the loose dye out and set the color. But the most important part of choosing a carpet is to make sure the design and color combination is good looking and tasteful, so 10 people can look at it and all say that it is a nice carpet.

    Q: Is bargaining acceptable? How much should you expect to pay for a quality rug?
    Nasser: It is at some stores. Lots of privately owned shops are OK with negotiating. After you have determined a competitive price for the class of rug you are purchasing, a good starting point to offer is 20 to 25 percent under the marked price.

    Q: Can you talk about the differences between tribal and city rugs?
    Nasser: Tribal rugs almost always have wool foundations. City rugs usually have cotton or silk foundations. Tribal designs are mostly geometric, whereas city rugs are more varied, from pictorial representations and floral designs to solid backgrounds with few ornamentations.

    Q: How do you find a reputable dealer?
    Peter: Luckily, in California, there are many experienced dealers. I would find out how long the store has been around and make sure they're informed and have a great selection. You have to be vigilant and explore the market. But when you find the rug that you love, the money won't make a difference.

Oriental rugs: Resources
  • For an interactive first-time buyer's guide, see www.RugRag.com.
  • A useful survey is "Oriental Carpet Design: A Guide to Traditional Motifs, Patterns and Symbols" by P.R.J. Ford (Thames & Hudson, 2008).

  • Local showrooms are good places to look at rugs up close. These include Ariana Rug Gallery, 457 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, 408-399-5600, www.arianaruggallery.com;

  • Stephen Miller Gallery, 800 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-327-5040, www.stephenmillergallery.com (related store: Decorative Arts Showroom, 840 Warrington Ave., Redwood City, 650-363-8858);

  • The Rug Center, 805 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View, 650-938-7846, www.rugcenter.com.

  • Specialists in cleaning/maintaining: The Rug Center (see above); Martinous Oriental Rugs, 25 Union St., San Jose, 408-294-6644, www.martinousrugs.com.