Have you ever wondered what those gold markings are on your favorite piece of ceramic? What is kintsugi? Can you use gold leaf for kintsugi? Where does it come from and where does it go?
All this and more today as we explore the origins and philosophy of the kintsugi ceramic technique, where it comes from, and where gold leaf sits in all of this.
What is Kintsugi?
Kintsugi – literally translating to ‘golden joinery’ – otherwise known as kintsukuroi (‘golden repair) is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery and ceramics with gold. These areas of breakage are treated with lacquer that has been dusted or completely mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, though it is much more common for a gold powder to be used, at least in the west.
Lacquering of this kind is an ancient tradition in Japan and, at some point in its history, gold leaf for kintsugi may have been combined with maki-e as a replacement for other repair techniques. The process is often associated with Japanese crafts, though the technique has been vastly applied elsewhere in the Asian continent and beyond, particularly by the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean.
Kintsugi art became closely associated with gilding for ceramics used for the all-important Japanese tea ceremony. The story goes that the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China for repairs. When it was returned punctured with a bunch of metal staples, it is believed to have prompted Japanese craftsmen to look for a more aesthetically pleasing means of repairing broken ceramics.
Eventually, this now-ancient technique became so popular that some were even accused of deliberately smashing valuable items to have the pottery repaired with kintsugi. Likewise, pieces of pottery were chosen precisely for the deformities they might have acquired during their various stages of production, then deliberately broken and repaired.
Of course, some have contested this origin story, especially in light of evidence that such ugliness as the tea bowl with clamps in sported was considered inspirational and Zen-like. This in itself was viewed as another form of beauty, a beauty found in broken things, leading to this kind of bowl becoming even more highly valued.
The Philosophy of Broken Things
Generally, the concept of kintsugi aligns philosophically with another Japanese philosophy, wabi-sabi, which itself promotes an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. Reflecting this philosophy, Japanese aesthetics will typically value marks of wear from use in one way or another.
It is precisely this philosophy that leads collectors to keep an object even after it has been broken, as well as the rationale for the existence of kintsugi in the first place. The idea is that this concept highlights the cracks and repairs as events in the life of an object rather than holding it to some sort of account as an item to serve you. In this way, it is respected almost as an individual, all with a life of its own.
Equally, kintsugi has been said to relate to another Japanese philosophy, mushin, or ‘no mind’. This is a central concept in Zen Buddhism, encapsulating the ideas of non-attachment, acceptance of change, and fate so beloved by followers of this faith.
In this way, the repairing of an object is not hidden but illuminated for all to see, especially since the joinery is done with shining metallic ores. This concept, then, of no mind is clear for all to see in the joinery of kintsugi, where the susceptibility of all objects and humans to bumps and knocks is exhibited on full display.
This has often been said to translate to an aesthetic of experience, a poignancy often referred to in Japan as mono no aware, which translates into a kind of compassionate sensitivity to things outside the self. This is a realization that, though we might wish it otherwise, life, time, and the world are all ongoing and we are at their behest, not the other way around as some like to believe.
Materials & Variations
Within the broad umbrella of kintsugi, there are at least a few major styles:
- Crack utilizes gold dust and resin or urushi lacquer to attach broken pieces together with as little overlap as possible or fill in from missing pieces.
- The piece method uses gold instead to replace an entire piece of ceramic where a replacement piece is not available. Thus, the entirety of the addition is done with gold and lacquer. Liquid gold leaf is not applicable here at all.
- Joint call is where a similarly-shaped but otherwise non-matching fragment is used to replace a missing piece from the original vessel. This creates a patchwork effect that some have deemed desirable.
The key materials involved in the process include:
- ki urushi (pure urushi)
- bengara urushi (iron-red urushi)
- mugi urushi (a mixture of half pure urushi and half wheat flour)
- sabi urushi (a mixture of urushi with two varieties of clay)
- a furo (a storage compartment that translates to ‘bath’ from Japanese in which the mended pottery can rest at 90% humidity for 2 days to 2 weeks so that the urushi can harden) – traditionally, a wooden cupboard and bowls of hot water would have been used, though nowadays these are often substituted for thick cardboard boxes which create a steady atmosphere of humidity – additionally, you might use large vessels filled with rice, beans, or sand, submerging the pottery within.
Even if purely for the origin story alone, staple repair is often associated with kintsugi. The intentions of the two forms of ceramic repair are rather similar. Within staple repair, small holes are drilled on either side of the crack where metal staples are bent to hold the pieces together. This technique was popular in Europe and China, though equally found use in ancient Greece, England, and Russia among others, often used for particularly valuable pieces whose sanctity could not possibly be marred.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are feeling a little more knowledgeable about just what kintsugi is and what it is used for. Perhaps you are even feeling ready and willing to give it a go yourself!
FAQs Gold Leaf for Kintsugi
Indeed you can. In fact, this is often one of the principal materials used for kintsugi, sometimes otherwise known as kintsukuroi. The technique makes use of gold leaf, silver leaf, and platinum leaf, often in their powdered forms, mixed with a specific kind of lacquer known as urushi. This is supposed to give it a binding agent so that it can actually glue a piece of ceramic back together.
The kintsugi ceramic technique makes use of gold leaf, silver leaf, and platinum leaf. For the best results, it is believed that only the highest quality materials should be used, which means that only ores of 24kt. This leaf will be powdered and then combined with glue – traditionally a kind of lacquer known as urushi – which will then allow the metal to hold all of the various pieces together. This lacquer has been used for thousands of years and was traditionally sourced from tree resin.
Powder is one of the key materials used in the kintsugi ceramic technique. This powder is the powdered leaf of metal – gold is most common, though silver, platinum, copper, and brass have all seen their fair share of usage over the years. Of course, powder alone cannot be used to bind various disparate pieces of ceramic together. Indeed, a binding agent is necessary to do so. Glue is often used, though traditionally a lacquer known as urushi would have been used, sourced from tree resin for hundreds of years by craftsmen in Japan.