Lacquer is the sap of the lacquer tree, which grows in East and Southeast Asia. Naturally sticky, it can be brushed onto different materials, and hardens into a durable coating that is waterproof and resistant to acids, alkalis, and heat. Because of its versatility and beauty, lacquer has been central to daily life in parts of Asia for over 9,000 years.
In Japan, artisans coated everyday items with lacquer, including furniture, boxes, dining sets, and cosmetic and writing tools. The base material could be wood, pottery, cloth, leather, or paper. To decorate these items, artisans painted designs with a mixture of lacquer and pigment, or used lacquer like a glue to inlay metal and mother-of-pearl.
But the pinnacle of lacquer decoration in Japan is maki-e (sprinkled picture). It consists of painting a design with lacquer, and then sprinkling metal powders onto the sticky lacquer before it hardens. Artisans first used maki-e techniques in the 8th century. As shown in this gallery, they developed them to an extraordinary degree over the centuries.