Golden opportunities in lacquer art

Vietnamese lacquer ware is known as the best of its kind in the world. The origins of lacquer go back six or seven thousand years to China, and no one quite knows when it made its way south to Vietnam. But for thousands of years it was handed down from generation to generation as a family secret until the first half of the 20th Century when artists in Hanoi revived the art at the Indochina Fine Arts School made it a popular occupation again and brought it to international prominence. Hanoi is still the centre of the industry and it is possible to visit showrooms and workshops where you can watch the process in action.

It was originally only produced in basic colours such as red, black, green, yellow and brown but over the last 70 years new techniques and materials have been introduced as well as more coloured lacquers. The process of mixing and the technique of rubbing the lacquer ware in water have also come a long way.

Based on the natural vegetable lacquer which comes from the lacquer tree, part of the cashew family, it can be found in several Asian countries. The best resin is thought to be found in the lacquer trees from the province of Vinh Phu in Vietnam.

It is an incredibly labour-intensive and time-consuming process as the lacquer goes through up to 20 stages over approximately 100 days. Most lacquer ware still depicts traditional Asian scenes such as exotic landscapes, dragons or ornamental gardens. However more modern designs are creeping in and can be found in modern galleries and shops.

Different woods are used as a base in lacquer ware products. Rose, cherry or walnut are used for furniture, screens and jewellery boxes, ebony for statues, jackfruit wood for boxes, bowls and plates and plywood for paintings.

The wood is covered with cotton gauze fixed with lacquer resin mixed with wood powder. Then two layers of resin are added with saw dust, crushed stone and loam. The mixture is applied to the base and then more layers are added, some with resin mixed with clay and powdered wood and others with powdered chalk and stone. The colours and images are then added after this has all been completed.

There are three types of Vietnamese lacquer ware – mother-of-pearl, painting and eggshell. The duck eggshell is particularly popular and only the shells of the duck already hatched are used because of their whiteness and thickness. The shells are mixed with chemical dyes and covered with layers of lacquer and rubbed with water between each layer. When the lacquer is exposed to air it produces a hard and durable coat.

Once you own lacquer ware products you need to look after them carefully. Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from extreme heat, otherwise they will fade and develop tiny cracks. Avoid using chemicals to clean your lacquer ware, just use a damp cloth to keep away the dust and moisture. If you follow these precautions your lacquer ware will last for years and years and look as good as the day you bought it.