Tiles were not produced in great quantities before circa 1200, and large-scale tile production kicks off at basically the same moment as the new "Kashan" style of painting: it is rare to find tiles decorated in the "Monumental" or "Miniature" styles althought they do exist. However, from the turn of the C13th, much of finest work of the Kashan potters is on tiles. The two prominent figures in this development are the potters Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir and Abu Zaid, who are known through signatures to have worked together on the most important tilework projects of the pre-Mongol period.
Their earliest dated joint effort is a sarcophagus in the tomb-chamber at Qumm, where the top panel is signed by Muhammad and the main frieze is signed by Abu Zaid. This work is dated 1206. At Mashhad in 1215 they undertake a much more ambitious project, cladding the walls in star and octagonal tiles surmounted by an inscription frieze, and installing two large and elaborate mihrabs, one of which is signed by Abu Zaid as well as a number of the star tiles. This is extremely high quality work, and shows that Abu Zaid produced some of the best products of the whole Kashan industry. There has been some confusion over dating this shrine, because two dates exist side by side in the inscriptions: 1215 and 1118. It is now thought that the tiling dates to the C13th, but the earlier date is included to commemorate the decoration that was replaced in 1215.
This pre-Mongol era in tile production sees a peak of artistic and technical achievement that is never again matched. The sudden decline in tile production after 1220 may be a result of the first wave of Mongol invasions, but may be equally due to the death of the pottery industrys two major figures, Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir and Abu Zaid. The formers last dated work was 1215 (Mashhad) and the latters was 1219. Thereafter there appears to be a vacuum which proves difficult to fill.
From this vacuum emerges the next generation of potters, who attempt to imitate the high quality work of their predecessors, and who do produce some masterpieces, but the technique and quality of execution is generally more simplified and standardised than the earlier products. The leading lights of the next generation emerge first in the 1220s and 1230s, but their artistic talents do not really emerge until the resumption of large-scale tile production in the 1260s. Hasan ibn al-Arabshah signed the mihrab from the Maidan Mosque in Kashan (d.1226) which according to Watson is timid and restrained in design; the son of Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir, Ali, produces a mihrab in 1242 for Mashhad, in which the cobalt has run badly, implying Alis technical skills are not yet developed.
Very few dated pieces are known from the period 1220 1260, but thereafter a number of grand commissions by the new Il-Khanid rulers stimulate the Kashan industry into a resurgence of productivity, in which Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir dominates. The major complex of the 1260s is the tomb-chamber of Imamzada Yahya at Veramin. The Ashmolean holds a group of these tiles in its collection. There are a series of lustre tiles from different dates from this complex, beginning with star and cross tiles dated 1262; a large mihrab is dated Shaban 1265, and another mihrab is added to the complex in Muharram 1305, signed by Alis son Yusuf.
The tomb-chamber of Imamzada Jafar at Damghan (d.1266-7) is the next big dated complex with lots of lustre decoration: star and cross tiles survive with animal and human figural decoration, and inscriptions bearing Persian poems. There is a beautiful panel of these tiles in the Louvre. The sizes of the tiles are smaller, and they use blue and turquoise in the design. Watson thinks the drawing na´ve compared to pre-Mongol production, but the technical quality is excellent.
The most important commission in the 1270s is the extensive palace complex at Takht-i Sulaiman, built by Abaqa Khan: this is the sole surviving secular building of this period which has lustre decoration. It is lavishly decorated in tiles of different techniques including lajvardina, which is the medium in which the new Chinese designs (phoenix, dragons, lotuses) especially appear. Star and cross tiles with inscriptions in Persian verse are dated 1271, 1272 and 1275; pictorial friezes show scenes of hunting and fighting, and also scenes from the Shah-Nameh: a lustre tile frieze tile in the V&A shows the hero Bahram Gur hunting with his favourite concubine Azada.
The next upturn in production is the first decade of C14th: in November 1300, 250 tiles were installed in mosque of Ali in Quhrud near Kashan. These bear arabesque and floral motifs, and Quranic inscriptions; further tiles were added in 1307, identical in style though with inscriptions in Persian verse. Yusuf ibn Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir also signs an inscription frieze dated 1310-11. After this, production again tails off, with a final and surprising burst of activity in the1330s when Yusuf signs a large mihrab for Imamzada Jafar in Qumm (1334); a series of star tiles installed in same building d.1337 contain two which are inscribed: " in the place Kashan in the workshop of Sayyid of Sayyids, Sayyid Rukn al-Din Muhammad son of the late Sayyid Zain al-Din Ali, the potter; the work of the most noble, the most excellent master, Master Jamal, the painter (al-naqqash)."
A few other tiles carry dates in the 1330s, but the very last dated item to be produced from Kashan kilns is a star tile bearing the date 1339. In the year before this, another star tile bears the desperate plea: " in the place Kashan, may Allah, be He exalted, protect it from the ravages of time." Was this a cry for help in the face of declining orders?