For most ethnic groups in the North Caucasus handicrafts were leisure-time activities; only in some settlements lying high in the mountains, where farming or livestock breeding were practically impossible, did they develop into folk craft industries. This was the case with Daghestan, the eastern part of the region, where the aul (village) of Kubachi, with its illustrious colony of folk artists, has retained its importance to the present day. There is probably no other place in the world where so many crafts are practiced and with such perfection. A Kubachi artisan's house is like a museum in which you can see fine examples of Eastern and Western china, glass, and metal. But the local inhabitants take particular pride in the work of their own masters. They make thin-walled copper vessels of unique shapes: jugs, pails, dishes, and cups, chased with large geometric figures. Another popular domestic item in mountain villages was a large bronze cauldron. Only in Kubachi did they continue to produce these cauldrons until the beginning of the twentieth century. Their earliest cauldrons were decorated with embossed representations of wild animals and hunting and battle scenes reminiscent of those found in medieval stone reliefs. Later, they were superseded by plant motifs. In the nineteenth century, the cauldron walls became plain, but the traditional noble shapes were retained.
Kubachi goldsmiths and armorers were well known in the East as far back as the Middle Ages, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries their work appeared on Russian, West European, and American markets.Kubachi buckles, clasps, pendants, bracelets, earrings, and other traditional adornments for women are usually decorated with an intricate combination of branch patterns nielloed on matted silver. The same motif adorns dishes and jugs made by smiths from this village. Niello, despite its deservedly high reputation as one of the specialties of Kubachi, is not the only technique employed by the local craftsmen; as willingly they use filigree combined with granulation, especially to make stunning wedding ornaments, which are set with precious or semiprecious stones and enamels.
Engraving and damascening with gold and silver were widely used to adorn the locally made side- and firearms; another special craft was the making of silver chains. The fine workmanship in all these techniques resulted from dedicated loyalty to tradition and skills passed from generation to generation.
The local people show an especially fond attachment to their pottery. There are three leading centers for folk ceramics in Daghestan: the settlements of Ispik and Sulevkent, known for their varicolored glazed earthenware, and Balkhar, where the potters have specialized in throwing slip-painted jugs of somewhat archaic shapes. The slip painting included basic geometric elements such as circles, zigzags, strokes, and dots, which organically blended with the vessel's shape. Handthrowing also plays an important role, both in shaping the pottery and in molding its decorations - a practice dating back to the time when the potter's wheel was still unknown in the mountains of Daghestan. Nowadays sculpted figurines are also produced there. Handworked clay animals and compositions depicting scenes from life in the mountains created by the craftswoman Zubaidat Umalayeva and her pupils are well known in Daghestan; the realism of the subjects is combined with highly skilled modelling.
Ceramics from Balkhar had always been made by women, but in Sulevkent, where unglazed pottery painted in slip was produced until the nineteenth century, the trade had been exclusively male. From then on, glazed jugs and dishes with molded or incised decoration were made. Potters from Sulevkent often left their village to work elsewhere; therefore their characteristic chechen wide-necked vessels were used by many national communities in the North Caucasus.
In the past, special popularity was enjoyed by ware from the village of Kala in southern Daghestan, where the industry had originated. The painted ornamentation on Kala pottery consisted mainly of stylized rosettes and trailing sprouts. Cosmogonic motifs were also sometimes included, which indicates that the potter's trade developed there at a very early date. In the fourteenth century, Kala was destroyed by its enemies and some of the inhabitants fled to the neighboring village of Ispik. The most typical Ispik ware is a large shallow dish with a broad sloping rim. Under its cherry-red glaze there is generally a design in relief, consisting of geometric elements and figures of birds and galloping horses. The older the article, the more life-like its representations.
By the nineteenth century, the designs had become more stylized, generalized, and dry, and the execution showed signs of deterioration. In the twentieth century, unglazed, unattractive utilitarian ware has replaced what used to be fine objects of folk art.
Untsukul is an important woodworking center where such objects as walking sticks, tobacco pipes, personal ornaments for women, decorative panels, and dishes are made of beautiful dark cherry-red cornel with silver and brass insets. The ornamentation consists chiefly of geometric motifs in varying arrangements. Modern Untsukul decoration may also include stylized images of birds, snow leopards, and Caucasian goats.
Carpet-making is one of Daghestan's most developed folk arts. In Daghestan's northern plains different types of flat-woven carpets and straw mats interwoven with colored wool are made. Patterned felt rugs are also common, but the most valuable articles are knotted pile carpets, which are woven in the mountains of southern Daghestan. Such kinds of carpets as the tabasaran, derbent, akhty. mikrakh, and some others are remarkable for their very high density, which enables the weavers to decorate them with elaborately detailed designs of great complexity.
A characteristic feature of the Daghestan carpet is a medallion in bold graphic outline, placed in the center. The background is usually filled with geometric ornaments or geometrically treated plant motifs. The saturated color scheme is based on the juxtaposition of reds, blues, yellows, greens, and pale blues. The sumakh, a special type of flat-woven carpet, is similar to pile carpets, but it is smooth-faced and has a soft layer of loose weft threads on the back, also forming a pattern. Sumakhs are remarkably strong and for this reason are ideal for use in the daily life of mountain dwellers. Carpet-weaving has remained to this day one of Daghestan's leading folk arts.
The arts and crafts of the North Caucasus are deeply entrenched in the people's life and national culture. It is on this basis that their age-old artistic traditions are maintained and enriched.