Why Lacquer?

October 11th, 2013 | posted by Justine D'Ooge

Used to decorate various objects, lacquer has come to be admired for it smooth, polished finish.  The beauty of this versatile material has been heightened with flecks of precious metals, materials such as tortoiseshell and ivory, and has even been set with hardstone and shells.  What many may not realize, however, is lacquer’s utilitarian roots.

Japanese Lacquer Tray.  Circa 1900.

Japanese Lacquer Tray. Circa 1900.

As early as 4,000-3,000 BCE sap was being harvested from the lacquer tree, rhus verniciflua, and used to protect everyday objects.  Finished lacquer is not only impressive in its appearance, but also in its durability; once the complicated task of polishing and burnishing lacquer is completed, it results in an impermeable surface, one that is resistant to moisture, alkali, and even acids.  Less elaborate versions of this tray, for instance, could be used daily without fear of it being ruined.

Turning extracted sap into the fine product you see on pieces such as these is serious business.  In Japan, by 701 AD, laws were made determining how many lacquer trees a household was allowed to grow.  Don’t mistake this to mean that the lacquer industry was easy money! There are over twenty steps required between the preparation of an item’s wood base and the finished work, and this is after the sap is tapped, stirred in the sun for evaporation purposes, and kneaded extensively.  Artisans that worked with lacquer had to be adept with a variety of tools as a myriad of stones, charred woods, and cloths were used throughout the polishing process.

Meiji-Period Lacquer Document Box

Meiji-Period Lacquer Document Box

 Just as porcelain became known as “china” in the West, lacquer became known as “Japan”.  This nomenclature took hold when the appetite for these objects grew following the arrival of the first Portuguese sailors there in the late 16th century.  The time-consuming nature of the process, however, meant that lacquer pieces were never exported at the same rate as porcelain, making these items highly collectable.  No other objects hold quite the same fascination, and luster, as lacquerware- they are true marvels of nature, as refined by man.  Click here to see more lacquer objects.

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