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Japanese Puzzle Box Marquetry

Along with the intriguing sliding parts of a Japanese Puzzle Box, the beautiful designs covering the outside can be just as captivating. These designs can consist of mountain and lake scenes or geometric patterns. This enchanting artistry is referred to as marquetry and requires as much craftsmanship and skill as the box making itself. Marquetry artisans use woods with no artificial tints or dyes to create vibrant multicolored designs. Himitsu Bako craftsmen typically create the design of their boxes and have the outside design applied at a later date. Yosegi-zaiku and Zougan are the two chief styles of marquetry found on the Japanese Puzzle Box. 

Yosegi-zaiku is the marquetry that uses a number of woods from the Hakone region in Japan. This region is the birthplace of Himitsu Bako and is popular for its assortment of trees, from Dogwoods to certain types of Magnolia. Using these various woods, blocks of color are created in a design of choice. Once the glue that holds these blocks together thoroughly dries, a craftsman will then shave off paper thin layers of color and apply them to the surface of the Japanese Puzzle Box in various designs. Common woods and colors for Yosegi-zaiku are: 

  • Nigaki, Laquer Tree- yellow 
  • Dogwood, Spindle Tree- white
  • Katsura- black
  • Honoki- gray
  • Cherry Tree- light brown
  • Keyaki- dark brown

Zougan is the exclusive marquetry tradition of the Hakone region. It is often used to portray traditional Japanese scenes of mountains, lakes or flying geese. Interestingly, much of this work was done with a chisel and needle in its earliest development. Rather than applying layers of color onto a surface, colored woods are inlayed into the surface of the Japanese Puzzle Box. Though many techniques are updated, this delicate art form still uses a chisel and requires the utmost of skill. Once again, woods from the surrounding Hakone region are used to create such things as peaceful lakeside scenes. Many boxes carry representations of Mt. Fuji as well.  

The delicate wood marquetry of a Japanese Puzzle Box is what makes it essential to keep it away from high heat and humidity. Many of these boxes are finished with only a thin lacquer or similar veneer. The delicate beauty of each box requires that owners be vigilant in their care and keeping of such an enchanting item. Doing so ensures the box can be enjoyed for many years to come. 

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