A finely crafted Japanese lacquerware jewelry box employing raden (inlay) ornamentation. The iridescent mother of pearl decorative inlay contrasts sharply with the coal black background, creating an interesting and visually powerful effect.
It is said that the Japanese have a distinct national character. They are widely considered to be industrious and extremely attentive to detail, yet also staunch traditionalists. As a result, the Japanese have traditionally excelled at repetitive, highly-skilled crafts that take many long years of training to perfect. This unique mix of Japanese cultural attributes has given rise to one of the world's great unsung art forms - Japanese lacquerware.
Urushi, or Japanese lacquerware, exudes the island nation's sleek minimalist, yet still naturalistic style. Flowers, mountains, trees and birds dance across lustrously polished lacquer surfaces as if alive. The soft glow of antique lacquer adorned with a stately gold crest of medieval Japanese nobility evokes the prestige and glory of feudal, Edo-era Japan. Inlaid mother of pearl decoration bursts into iridescent animation, radiating vibrantly against a smooth, burnished lacquer background. Lacquerware is truly Japan's most original, and perhaps finest, national craft.
While used in China as long ago as the 3rd century BC, lacquerware only spread to Japan in the 7th century AD. Although not native to their island, the Japanese soon fully embraced this demanding handicraft. Over the passing centuries Japanese craftsmen constantly innovated, eventually raising lacquerware to the nation's pre-eminent art form by the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the 18th and 19th centuries. As The West came into contact with Japan during the Age of Exploration, Europe became obsessed with the intricate, fanciful designs and mesmerizing luster of its fine lacquerware. The ill-fated, late 18th century French queen Marie Antoinette was famous for her Japanese lacquerware collection. So was the European monarch August the Strong, the early 18th century King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. In fact, the word "Japan" itself became a synonym for Japanese lacquerware in England during the Georgian era.
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The hard lacquer coating used in the production of Japanese lacquerware originates from the toxic sap of the urushi tree (Rhus verniciflua). This sap contains the same chemical irritant found in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Urushi sap is harvested in a very similar way to natural rubber from rubber trees. A series of parallel grooves are cut into the urushi tree's bark. The sap that weeps from these wounds is collected, filtered and purified before being applied to a base object. Once processed, urushi sap loses all its toxic characteristics and becomes completely safe. The sap can be used on a wide range of materials including paper, plastic, metal, leather and glass, but is most often used on wood.
It takes anywhere from 5 to 40 individual layers of sap to complete a piece of Japanese lacquerware. After each layer is applied by hand, the wet sap is hardened via a chemical process known as polymerization by subjecting it to a sauna-like environment of elevated heat and humidity. This is followed by laborious sanding to prepare the dried lacquer to accept the next coat of sap. This painstaking layering process continues with progressively finer sanding grit until the final layer is polished with an incredibly fine abrasive - traditionally powdered stag horn and oil.
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The resulting hardened lacquer finish is incredibly durable, resisting water, salt, acid, alkali and alcohol with ease. It can also resist temperatures up to approximately 300 degrees centigrade (572 degrees Fahrenheit)! Lacquer's only apparent weakness is its propensity to degrade after prolonged exposure to the harsh ultraviolet rays of strong, direct sunlight. Japanese lacquerware is so enduring that it is common for pieces to last over a century, even with regular use. In fact, the old Japanese saying about lacquerware is "Once you buy it, it will last through your grandchildren’s generation." In spite of Japanese lacquerware's extreme toughness, using it in the microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator or oven is strongly discouraged because temperature extremes can cause the wood base to warp, thus damaging the lacquer finish.
A variety of striking decorative techniques are used in Japanese lacquer-work. Most commonly, the lacquer itself is dyed - usually a deep cinnabar red or charcoal black. Of course, the lacquer can also be left clear if the artist wishes to accentuate an object's underlying wood grain. Another technique frequently used is called "maki-e." In maki-e, powdered gold or silver dust is sprinkled onto the still wet lacquer in the shape of a decoration. Once the lacquer is cured, the gold or silver dust forms a glittering, shimmering metallic design that is permanently embedded in the surface of the hardened lacquer. The final type of decoration commonly encountered is called "raden." Raden is an inlaying technique where small pieces of bone, ivory or mother of pearl are inset into the surface of an item to form a design or picture. Multiple layers of clear lacquer are then applied over the entire item and polished to a high luster. Japanese lacquerware crafters are true artists, often using a combination of contrasting decorative technique simultaneously for maximum visual effect.
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Most Japanese lacquerware shares similar styles, motifs and forms regardless of its date of manufacture. This can make date attribution difficult. Edo and Meiji era (pre-1912) Japanese lacquerware designs often have a slightly stiffer and more formal appearance, even when portraying naturalistic scenes. However, by the time of the Taisho and Showa eras (1912 onwards), decoration becomes very subtlety looser and freer in execution due to Western artistic influence. Another dating hint is when a distinctly non-Japanese artistic style is employed. For example, Art Deco design elements would suggest an early 20th century origin. Japanese lacquerware was also produced in different forms over the decades. For example, incense boxes and Inro (a Japanese wallet for use with kimonos) are indicative of Edo or Meiji era 19th century lacquer-work. While still notoriously tough to date, all of these clues used together can help to properly attribute Japanese lacquerware.
When buying Japanese lacquerware for investment purposes, the foremost consideration is quality workmanship. There is a very broad quality range of lacquerware available in the marketplace today. Low quality lacquerware is hastily manufactured using synthetic, polymer-based lacquers instead of genuine sap from the urushi tree. In addition, poor quality specimens will invariably use far fewer layers of lacquer than a high quality piece. Good quality lacquerware will always possess many layers of urushi lacquer - and even more layers when richly decorated. The delicate artistic treatment of any decoration is another hallmark of fine vintage Japanese lacquerware. A legitimate, investment-grade specimen will possess intricately detailed designs or scenes that are precisely rendered. Poor quality lacquerware will have sloppily or nebulously executed designs.
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When looking for good investment returns, it is best to avoid Japanese lacquerware that is plain, with no decoration. While Japanese craftsmanship naturally tends toward the stylistically uncluttered, lacquerware with no embellishment whatsoever is unlikely to ever be highly desirable. As with all antiques, condition is also of paramount importance. As a general rule, heavily damaged examples should be avoided. Minor damage to lacquerware can often be repaired and thus may be acceptable in otherwise exceptional or historically important pieces.
Although lacquer can be coated on a variety of base materials, high quality Japanese lacquerware is almost always applied to wood. Plastics are often used as the base for cheaper, lower quality pieces using synthetic lacquers. A good way to check the quality of a vintage lacquer item is carefully balance it loosely in one hand and then tap it with your finger. Natural lacquer over wood will tend to give a clear, resonant sound while cheap, synthetic lacquer over plastic will give a dull, lifeless thud. It is no coincidence that fine musical instruments through the ages - ranging from 17th century Stradivarius violins to 1950s Gibson Les Paul electric guitars - have traditionally been constructed from fine tonewoods coated with many layers of natural lacquer.
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Within a specific class of antiques, it is a general rule that the older the item, the more expensive it becomes. This rule only marginally applies in the case of vintage Japanese lacquerware. Even recent specimens from late in the 20th century are very desirable if they are well made. Due to the highly-skilled and labor-intensive nature of lacquerware manufacturing, little high quality production emanates from Japan in any given year. And because fine lacquerware crafting does not lend itself to automation, this situation is unlikely to ever change. Therefore, there is little worry that the market will suddenly be flooded by modern, high quality lacquerware.
As with all antiques, pricing for Japanese lacquerware varies greatly with quality. 19th century Edo and Meiji era lacquerware is typically rather expensive, with prices ranging from just over $200 for simple examples to several thousand dollars for ornate, expertly crafted ones. Taisho and early Showa era lacquerware from the first half of the 20th century is nearly as expensive as older specimens. Japanese lacquerware of more modern vintage is usually slightly less costly, with entry-level investment-grade examples starting at a little over $150 each. Japanese lacquerware is truly one of the greatest investment secrets of today's art world - a glittering gem in the rough. And it is a testament to the nature of the Japanese people that they have managed to keep this magnificent art form alive for over a thousand years.