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Japanese Lacquerware: Intricate ancient craft

Japanese lacquerware is a Japanese craft used within a wide range of fine and decorative arts. Japanese lacquerware is crafted from a deep and shiny lustre of black or red, and is sometimes adorned with a gold leaf or mother-of-pearl inlay. Japanese lacquerware was introduced to the West during the 16th century but only began to spread more widely in the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company, immediately enthralled royalty and nobility to Japanese lacquerware. Let’s take a look at the history and intricate processes that are carried out to achieve exquisite and unique lacquerware products.

A step back in time

Japanese lacquerware uses a unique substance called urushi which has been used to produce holy ceremonial ornaments, works of art and utilitarian objects for thousands of years. The oldest urushi lacquered ornaments discovered in Japan date back to around 7000 BC, during the Jōmon period, and they remain the world’s oldest urushi lacquer objects to date. Japanese lacquerware technology is believed to have been invented by the Jōmon as they learned to refine urushi, a process which took several months. This process also began to see the use of iron oxide and cinnabar, the products used for creating the distinctive red Japanese lacquerware. Lacquerware was traditionally used in pottery, different types of wooden items and, in some cases, burial clothes for the dead were also lacquered. Since so many lacquered objects have been discovered, that are said to have been from the early Jōmon period, it is indicated that Japanese lacquerware was clearly a highly established part of Jōmon culture.
Many experts are divided on whether Jōmon lacquerware was derived from Chinese techniques or invented independently as many traditional crafts and industrial arts produced throughout Japanese history were initially influenced by China. As Japan entered the Edo period, they saw an increase in the growth and use of lacquer trees and the development of the techniques used. By the 18th century, coloured lacquers came into wider use to craft more unique and bespoke Japanese lacquerware. In recent decades, there has been an effort made by the Japanese government to preserve the art of making Japanese lacquerware.

An introduction to urushi

Urushi is a natural sap found in the urushi tree with its beauty and lustre being one of the many appeals that urushi has when used for Japanese lacquerware, the extraction which, uses and maximises the natural vitality of the urushi tree. Urushi is one of the most durable natural lacquers available, making it perfect for crafting a range of Japanese lacquerware ornaments that are designed to stand the test of time. Astoundingly, the urushi tree creates this intricate sap to heal itself when it becomes damaged, this quality has many characteristics important to the making of Japanese lacquerware. Starting from its unique drying process caused by humidity, to its great strength after drying, urushi allows for durable and incredibly hard finishes for Japanese lacquerware once dry. Moreover, urushi lacquer is resistant to water, acids, alkali, alcohol and heat as well as having antibacterial effects, making it a truly remarkable substance to craft from.

A valuable asset

Urushi is a highly valuable asset to the Japanese lacquerware industry and takes a lot of time and knowledge to collect. Urushi is tapped by carving the bark of the urushi tree with a horizontal long groove that’s left to produce a clear milky-white sap. Before urushi sap can be collected, it takes at least 10 if not 15 years for a fully developed urushi tree to grow big enough to be tapped. The urushi tree yields around 100 to 200 grams of raw urushi sap in its whole lifetime, making it a very precious and expensive substance which is why Japanese lacquerware is so valuable. Due to its valuable nature, it takes a highly skilled and experienced urushi collector to tap the trees, this is often done from June to October and is a painstaking experience where the collector extracts the Japanese lacquerware sap drop by drop.
The whole extraction process is incredibly natural and relies on a skilled urushi collector to collect the sap entirely by hand. The skill, knowledge and decision making to collect urushi sap is very complex, and since each tree is different, urushi collectors must understand the conditions of each tree. From the angle of the tree trunk to the direction of the sun, many variables have to be taken into account before the sap can be collected to make traditional Japanese lacquerware.
At Atelier Japan, we use only the finest traditional craft techniques. Our makers have stood the test of time and have prevailed among huge global disturbances, remaining unwilling to go backwards. Visit Atelier Japan to explore the products that our makers have taken care and time to craft.