|Satsuma ware tea bowl, Japan, 17th c, Edo period|
Kintsugi is said to have originated in the 15th century when a Japanese shogun broke a favorite tea bowl and sent it back to China to be fixed. But the repair job, which was done with metal staples (being the standard for repair at that time), detracted from the beauty of the bowl, so the shogun enlisted Japanese craftsmen to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing solution. Kintsugi, which means "golden joinery," was born.
|Japan, early 18th c, Edo period|
Although kintsugi repair makes it appear as though the original piece was mended with gold, the process is essentially a form of lacquer art. Broken pieces are glued back together using urushi lacquer, derived from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree (Latin name, Toxicodendron vernicifluum), with the final layer of urushi covered with fine gold powder. The "toxic" part comes from the urushiol oil which is found in very high amounts in the tree's sap, and which also happens to be the ingredient that's responsible for forming the dense and highly durable lacquer once dried. You might have come into contact with urushiol yourself if you ever had a tangle with some poison oak or ivy, which are also of the Toxicodendron family of plants. Fortunately, once the urushi dries and hardens the toxic effects of the urushiol oil are essentially nullified, making the lacquer ware safe to handle and even to use in contact with food, or tea.
|Kintsugi repair done in silver|
Today, thanks to modern chemistry, lacquer ware (including kintsugi) can be accomplished with acrylic polymers that don't pose any danger for nasty skin or respiratory irritations. There are even fake gold powders that can be used in lieu of very pricey real gold... that is, if you don't mind the too-bright, too-yellow, too-fake look of imitation gold. Personally, I'm a fan of tradition. Nothing compares to the depth and patina of the real thing.
|Mid-15th c. Punch'ong bowl (Korea) with maki-e repair|
But gold isn't the only color of kintsugi repair. Other powdered metals can be used as well, including silver (sometimes referred to as gintsugi), copper or brass. Even the gold itself comes in different colors and hues, and can be any variation of matte or shiny. Neither do the repairs have to be finished with metal powders. Sometimes the urushi is simply colored to complement the piece, or can even be colored in such a way that it blends almost invisibly with the original piece.
|Repair made with colored urushi -- no metal powder|
In addition to the most well known "veins of gold" look, there are a few other variations of repair. If the broken piece is missing a large chunk it can be repaired with a technique known as makienaoshi, or maki-e. This is where the gold lacquered area is additionally covered with a picture or design, often executed in various types of gold. Yet another type of related repair is called yobitsugi where broken parts from different, unrelated pieces are glued together to form one piece.
Thankfully, I haven't yet broken any of my favorite teaware. But if you have there are people who can do this type of repair, some of whom can be found with a search of the TeaChat forums. There's also a kintsugi kit you can buy now which comes with a two-part acrylic resin and a supply of imitation gold powder, although the examples I've seen of repairs done with this kit have not impressed me, either with the gawdy fake gold or the blobby raised ridge of glue-resin that results. Kintsugi repair should complement and add beauty to a piece, blending in with the spirit and function of it. Following is a very good video showing a traditional kintsugi artist at work, and below that more beautiful images of kintsugi work. Enjoy :)