Lacquerware are items that have been painted with a decorative material called lacquer. This style is thought to have originated in South Asia, where it is still produced in countries including China, Japan, and Burma, as well as Korea and Vietnam. These countries, while utilizing many of the same techniques and similar styles, have also developed their own characteristic elements of lacquerware.
Lacquer is made from sap extracted from the Rhus veniciflua tree. After the impurities are removed from the sap, artists add color in the form of oils or pigments, or they use the natural, rich, transparent brown color. Lacquer adds a range of finishes to a product, from matte to high gloss. Many successive coats are added, especially to carved pieces, making the process time-consuming and costly. Original laquerware was made almost exclusively from wood.
Original lacquerware was confined to practical items, such as buttons, boxes, and tableware. The coating of lacquer was not only decorative but also served to make the item sturdier and more resistant to water and heat damage. The evolution of lacquerware, while still often functional, has resulted in a mainly aesthetic product and is used for a wide variety of items, including housewares and art. The material under the lacquer has also widened in scope, with bamboo and horsehair commonly providing bases.
China is credited with being the earliest known source of lacquerware, with pieces discovered as belonging to periods as early as the neolithic. Many current techniques and styles evolved from what Chinese manufacturers first produced. Pictorial designs, including birds, animals, and flowers, are popular examples of this.
Carved patterns that require many layers of lacquer are also thought to be originally of Chinese origin. They are also credited with first incising the surface layers and inlaying not only different colors of lacquer but gold, sliver, and mother-of-pearl. Finally, it is also thought the Chinese were the first to lay down gold and silver images onto items before covering them with glossy lacquer layers.
The Japanese, who are also touted as being very early producers of lacquerware, built on the techniques developed by the Chinese. One of their most notable contributions was the addition of powdered gold or silver to the lacquer, a style called makie. They also experimented with building up layers on focal parts of the piece rather than evenly on the entire surface. Japanese artists used lead, tin, and pewter for inlay. In Japan, lacquerware was considered to be more of an art form and symbol of status rather than functional decoration.
Burmese artisans use a different type of tree for their lacquer sap, Gluta usitata. This sap provides the characteristic look of traditional Burmese pieces. Originally straw-colored, the sap turns black when exposed to air and produces a hard, smooth surface that has a rich and glossy shine. The special style of Korean lacquerware is to inlay mother-of-pearl in combination with tortoise shell. Similarly, Vietnam is also known for its unique inlays of seashells and eggshells.