Why is Urushi Lacquer so Special, Anyway?
Urushi is poetry of contradiction - of radiance and reflection - as bright morning light on still waters - yet of glowing, gentle luster - as the warm tones of a sky with a setting sun.
A poetic description, but Urushi lacquer has indeed been wowing people for a very long time! There are probably very few crafts in this world - still practiced - that can actually trace their origins back 7000 years to prehistoric times! Arguments can be made for its practical values, but in the end, it is Urushi's unique, special and almost contradictory and unique aesthetic qualities that sets it apart from gold, silver and other metals and gem stones, and secures its place in an aesthetic category of its very own.
What is Japanese Urushi Lacquer Made From?
To start, what does the word Urushi mean? Though Urushi is sometimes called lacquer, the word gets a bit lost in translation! Lacquer, strictly speaking, comes from the lac insect - of which Urushi is not from! Nor is Urushi a chemical solution or some kind of mix - as the modern use of the term lacquer sometimes refers.
Rather, Urushi lacquer comes from mother nature's bounty, a completely natural sap from the Urushi tree - a tree originally indigenous to Asia. This raw sap, urushiol, is toxic to the touch, but dried, incredibly hard, durable, lustrous and endearingly beautiful! In fact, the ancient Urushi objects excavated in Japan still maintain the luster of the original urushi! (1)
Sticky and glue-like, Urushi sap was apparently first used to adhere a stone arrowhead onto a bamboo cane. Its hard, watertight qualities, and aesthetic appeal as well, however, soon brought Urushi into common use on objects for everyday life and other objects have been found as well such as bowls, lacquered containers that were made of bamboo, and even women's combs and earrings among other items. So the wondrous qualities, both practical and beautiful, of Urushi have been recognized for a very long time! (1)
A Traditional Craft
Officially designated by the Japanese government as a Traditional Craft of Japan, the beauty of Urushi is regarded close in line with other treasures from the earth such as precious gems, silver and gold. As such, like many other fine crafts, Urushi appears in museums in Japan and around the world as well as in high-end craft boutiques where exceptional examples of Urushi can be very pricey- upwards of $7,500 or more! Here is a photo of my wedding box - a traditional example of Urushi with Maki-e decoration.
Contemporary New Wave at Urushi Sakamoto Studio
Designer, Rie Sakamoto (pictured here), and the craftsmen and women team at Urushi Sakamoto, build on those traditional foundations while engaging with Japan's new wave of craft art and design today. Rei Sakamoto designs unique Urushi Jewelry with a combination of traditional and modern techniques.
The Craftspeople are trained in Urushi application and design at Urushi Sakamoto Studio. Though contemporary in form, this craft still demands many traditional, handed-down skills and techniques. Some of those include the processing and refining of the raw Urushi sap, working with various pigments, the application of the Urushi to the wood-carved object, careful attention to the drying of the object and many more. All of which must be learned, practiced and applied.
There are many types of lacquerware in Japan. But contemporary jewelry made from this special sap from the Urushi tree, is fairly uncommon and relatively new. The fact the Urushi works so very well for jewelry is actually due to its amazing versatility. Urushi in the right hands, will gracefully embrace any kind of shaped object. This is one reason you also see fine craft artists working with it as well!
How is Urushi Lacquer Jewelry Made?
The Raw Urushi Sap
At Urushi Sakamoto Studio, the process starts with refining the raw Urushi lacquer sap where it is filtered of impurities, the moisture removed, then the sap is mixed and wrung out with cotton among other procedures. Once refined, various natural substance are added to obtain the black color. With this refined black Urushi, layer upon layer - up to at least fifteen - are repeatedly applied, and dried on the object. Urushi is very delicate until dry, and any small particles of dust must be kept away.
The "Drying" - Process
The drying of the Urushi objects can be tricky and in the past made the Urushi craft dependent on the seasons - in fact drying fastest in during the rainy season of Japan. This may seem counter intuitive, but Urushi would not dry or set well in the desert because it requires humidity to harden. Humidity causes moisture to evaporate which supplies oxygen to the Urushi and promotes oxygenation. It is through oxygenation, then, that the "drying" takes place (1). In modern times, this drying process is often conducted in special, dust-free rooms or cases with proper temperature and humidity controls.
Once the undercoat is dried, various color pigments of red, yellow, green and others, are added to a clear Urushi sap which, applied many times over the black Urushi undercoating, help draw out the signature quality of this craft: brilliant color and a soft, lustrous sheen. The drying Urushi is also very receptive to additional application of silver, gold and other metals.
Global Appeal and Recognition
Urushi's unique versatility contributes to its popularity world-wide on objects for contemporary life. Urushi Sakamoto Studio (father and daughter pictured below), have engaged in many unique collaborative efforts with global brands such as Citizen (watches), Toshiba (laptop computer), Fostex (headphones) and Christofle (Paris, tableware pictured above), to name a few, where the versatile, hard, yet lustrous surfaces from Urushi adds beauty to function.
The Gift You've Been Looking For
Products like these, and Urushi Jewelry at Urushi Sakamoto Studio, make for unique, quality gifts that are special in form, one-of-a-kind design, from Japan - known for its quality, and exceptional craftsmanship from craft-artists dedicated to their art. The Sakamoto family continues to pay homage to those hard-earned traditions with their signature Urushi Jewelry, while also striving to continuously infuse the craft with modern techniques, materials and original designs for contemporary life.
Accolades: MoMA, NY