Cinnabar Lacquerware (Worth, Origin & Process)


Throughout the many ages, China has been producing works of art that are lacquered. The sap of the lac tree, which may be found in several locations across central and southern China, is used in the production of lacquer. The colour of the resultant lacquer is altered by adding different pigments to it, and the artwork is finished by applying many coats of the lacquer in a layering fashion. After a number of applications, the lacquer is then carved, which results in the creation of one-of-a-kind motifs, patterns, and topics. On lacquer, which was prevalent across China, was cinnabar lacquer, which was manufactured by combining a mineral called cinnabar with lacquer. Cinnabar was thought to be a relatively harmless material. Cinnabar lacquer was employed on a broad range of artefacts ranging in size from jewellery pieces to massive ceramic or metal vases. Its applications included both inside and exterior surfaces of these objects.


Cinnabar is a kind of mineral that may be found in areas with active volcanoes or springs of hot water. It has a high concentration of mercury, and when it is reduced to a powder form, it takes on a dark crimson hue. At one point in time, it was thought that the harmful effects of mercury might be negated by heat, however it seems that research has demonstrated that this hypothesis is erroneous. However, for a significant number of years prior to the discovery of the carcinogenic properties of mercury, cinnabar lacquer was manufactured and used for carving.

The process of creating a piece of cinnabar lacquer is one that is both intriguing and time demanding. In the beginning, the foundational piece was crafted, which may have been a vase or a brooch. After that, several coats of cinnabar lacquer were applied to the surface. In order to generate a multicolor look in the pattern, the layers of lacquer would often switch in hue. Some pieces would have more than 300 coats of lacquer applied to them. Because each layer had to be allowed to cure before the next one was placed, the preparation of certain works may take as much as a half a year, while the preparation of bigger pieces could take years. The process of carving could commence after the layers of lacquer had achieved the appropriate depth for the design.

The procedure of carving a piece out of cinnabar lacquer was incredibly delicate, and it may take the artist several years to finish the work. Causing a slide may entail the application of numerous fresh coats of lacquer or even necessitate starting the process all over again from the beginning. Causing a slip required extreme caution. After the carving was done, an additional coat of lacquer was applied to the surface of the sculpture to protect it. In this last process, clear lacquer that did not contain cinnabar was often used to prevent the object from spreading mercury to the skin. This was a particularly crucial consideration for jewellery pieces.

There are still many cinnabar lacquer pieces available for purchase, and they fetch a very high price due to the depth of their colours and the complexity of their carvings. It is crucial to limit exposure to these older pieces as much as possible in order to avoid any contamination; yet, items that are stored behind glass may still be great additions to any collection. Even though the production of real cinnabar lacquer pieces is almost nonexistent in the modern day, many carvers still use chemical imitations of cinnabar in the lacquer they use in their work. Because of this, carved lacquer items have been able to continue being manufactured despite the potentially detrimental consequences that are associated with working with cinnabar.

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