Kintsugi is a Japanese method to repair tableware that has its roots in traditional urushi lacquerware making technique. In recent years, I have seen many images of ceramics with golden cracks labeled ‘kintsugi’ on the Internet, but unfortunately many are not real kintsugi.
I appreciate that the Japanese term is getting known in the US and internationally. It allows for people to be more curious about Japanese craft and aesthetics in general, and that is a good thing. But I also want to clarify that a significant amount of time and expensive materials are needed to master the true kintsugi technique. So for the sake of the skilled craftsmen that practice it, I feel that pots with painted gold color lines, or broken pots repaired with epoxy and gold mica powder should not be labeled as “kintsugi.”
In true Kintsugi, the adhesive sap extracted from a lacquer tree (urushi) is used to piece the broken pieces together. In its wet state, this sap can cause severe allergies when touched.
When I was in primary school, I was taught to avoid the low trees with compound leaves on red branches that maybe urushi. And even then, I fell victim to the urushi allergy several times playing in the woods. The acute itchiness that often struck while sleeping was the worst torture that you can experience. This is a risk that every kintsugi craftsman faces while handling their material.
Urushi is also a very peculiar material that dries by absorbing moisture. Many layers must be applied, with each layer requiring time for hardening in a damp environment. Once urushi hardens, it is extremely durable, and can withstand the likes of acids, alcohol, and hot and cold water.
The gold is applied by sprinkling powder gold on top of a layer of urushi while still wet. This lacquerware technique is called makie, an ancient method to decorate the surface with beautiful gold designs that became very popular during the Edo (1603-1868) period. The earliest example of the makie technique can be seen on the sheath of a Chinese style sword from the 7th to 8th Centuries in the Shosoin collection. Shosoin is a treasure house that belongs to the Todai-ji temple in Nara.
Kintsugi is not about putting the broken pieces together with gold for appearance. It is about repairing something that is irreplaceable with urushi lacquer, a uniquely durable natural material that has been time-tested over many centuries. The layer of gold is to cover its dark appearance, and because gold is a non-reactive metal, the vessel may be used for eating and drinking. Other less-reactive metals like silver can also be used.
Considering the cost and the time required to repair the vessels, it is obvious that most broken pots are not worth repairing with kintsugi. But I think it’s a unique and appropriate way to repair a special piece of broken pottery that is irreplaceable or of immense sentimental value that you wish to keep and use for many years.