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What Is Lacquerware‎?

Lacquerware is a stunning art form where objects are coated with lacquer to create a hard, glossy finish. This technique, with roots in ancient Asia, transforms everyday items into exquisite treasures, often adorned with intricate designs. Intrigued by how these pieces can elevate your home decor? Discover the beauty and craftsmanship behind lacquerware in our full exploration.
Andrea Cross
Andrea Cross

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 goods, such as buttons, boxes, and tableware.
Original lacquerware was confined to practical goods, such as buttons, boxes, and tableware.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is lacquerware and how is it made?

Lacquerware refers to decorative and functional items coated with lacquer, a substance derived from the sap of the lacquer tree. The process involves applying multiple layers of lacquer onto a base material such as wood, bamboo, or paper, then polishing it to a high shine. Each layer must dry and harden before the next is applied, making the creation of lacquerware a time-consuming art that can take several months to complete.

What are the historical origins of lacquerware?

Lacquerware has ancient roots, with evidence of its use dating back to the Neolithic period in China, over 7,000 years ago. It spread throughout Asia, with each region developing its own unique styles and techniques. For instance, Japanese lacquerware, known as "urushi," has been perfected over centuries and is renowned for its beauty and durability. The craft has been designated as an important cultural property by the Japanese government.

What are the common uses of lacquerware?

Lacquerware is traditionally used for a variety of purposes, ranging from household items like bowls, trays, and boxes to ceremonial and decorative objects. Due to its waterproof and preservative qualities, it is ideal for food containers and utensils. In modern times, lacquerware continues to be appreciated for its aesthetic appeal and is often collected as art or used in interior design to add an elegant touch to home decor.

How do you care for and maintain lacquerware?

To preserve the beauty of lacquerware, it should be handled with care. It's best to avoid exposure to extreme temperatures, direct sunlight, and chemicals. Cleaning should be done with a soft, damp cloth without using abrasive cleaners. If properly maintained, lacquerware can last for generations, becoming more lustrous with age as the lacquer continues to harden and develop a deeper patina.

Are there any notable lacquerware techniques or styles?

Yes, there are several renowned techniques and styles in lacquerware. For example, the Chinese are known for their carved lacquer, where thick layers are incised to reveal intricate patterns. The Japanese maki-e technique involves sprinkling gold or silver powder onto wet lacquer to create detailed images. In Vietnam, eggshell and mother-of-pearl inlay are popular, creating shimmering, textured surfaces that catch the light beautifully.

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    • Original lacquerware was confined to practical goods, such as buttons, boxes, and tableware.
      By: Michele Sacchetti
      Original lacquerware was confined to practical goods, such as buttons, boxes, and tableware.