In My Cups: Lacquerware

My lacquerware teacup with the elegant grain of the wood showing through. (Photo source: article author)
My lacquerware teacup with the elegant grain of the wood showing through. (Photo source: article author)

Ever since I was a kid I was intrigued by the beautiful, exotic arts of Japan. I used to go to the library to look through their enormous volume of Hokusai prints, and I never missed a museum exhibition of Japanese arts or crafts. I’ve learned and taught origami, dabbled in Japanese brush painting, and have stashed away a couple of rolls of washi paper that I plan to use once I can bring myself to cut it into more manageable sizes.

I still appreciate the Asian, particularly Japanese, aesthetic in arts and crafts, especially as it relates to tea. The first teapot I ever owned was handmade by a Japanese potter in the USA, and many of the tea pieces I’ve collected are from Asia, especially Japan.

My dear husband has been known to mention my interest in tea and tea things to his colleagues, several of whom have been kind enough to bring teas and “things” back from their various travels. One piece that I particularly treasure is a Japanese lacquerware teacup.

Originally developed in China, the Japanese have been producing lacquerware since at least the fifth century C.E. The craft reached the height of its popularity in the sixth and seventh centuries with the advent of Buddhism for the creation of icons and ritual objects. That popularity began to wane with Western influences in Japan in the nineteenth century. While there are still Japanese artisans working in this medium, many of the products identified as lacquerware are fashioned from hard plastic to mimic the real thing.

Genuine lacquerware is produced with a type of varnish made from the sap of the lacquer tree. It is toxic in its liquid form; in fact, the lacquer tree is related to poison ivy. A good deal of skill is required to work with lacquer, as it is essential not to come into direct contact with it.

Lacquer is applied most commonly to wooden objects – like my teacup – but may also be used on baskets, pottery, and even paper. The lacquer dries to a durable and impermeable glossy finish that is can be decorated, often with inlays of semi-precious stones or minerals, before a final clear lacquer coating is applied. The technique is most popularly used for bento boxes – a compartmentalized Japanese lunch box – various containers, decorative objects, and serving ware.

While it may look weighty, my cup is actually quite thin – almost paper thin. The formation of the cup itself shows great artistry in woodworking, enhanced by the beauty of the lacquer finish.

Although I’ve sipped senchas and gyokuros from this cup, I’ve found that its tall, narrow shape makes it more suited to oolong teas, creating sort of a pan-Asian tea time.

If you’re considering buying one or more pieces of Japanese lacquerware, do be cautious! While contemporary pieces, like my teacup, do exist, a careful reading of product descriptions often reveals that what is described as lacquerware is in fact manufactured of plastic. Vintage pieces are more likely to have been created with traditional materials … and their prices reflect their authenticity. As with all fine objects, buy from a dealer you trust.

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3 thoughts on “In My Cups: Lacquerware

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  3. As with incised lacquer, gold leaf wares have also been subject various innovations. Blue and gold wares became popular during the colonial period. Tradition asserts that a Frenchman (who remains anonymous), commissioned a complete dinner service with a matt blue lacquer surface embellished with a Burmese chin-thei lion at the center surrounded by a band of Chinese-in-spired fret type patterns and finished around the edge with a plain gold rim. Other lacquerware establishments to sell to foreign tourist eventually copied these pieces. Boxes and flower vases have also been seen embellished in this technique, many of which appear to be older than those with the chin thei design. Because the blue does not adhere well to the underlying surface, on many of the older wares the underlying black base-coat is clearly visible.

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