art pieces have been produced in China for many centuries.
Lacquer is produced from the sap of the lac tree,
which is commonly found in central and southern China.
Various pigments are added to the resulting lacquer
to change its color, and then the lacquer is applied in many
coats to an art object.
After many coats, the lacquer is carved, producing
unique designs, patterns, and subjects.
On lacquer, which was prominent throughout China, was
cinnabar lacquer, which was made by mixing a seemingly
innocuous mineral called cinnabar with lacquer.
Cinnabar lacquer was used on a wide variety of pieces
ranging in size from jewelry pieces to large ceramic or
Cinnabar is a mineral that
appears near volcanoes or hot springs.
It is rich in mercury and, when ground into a fine
powder, produces a deep red tint.
It was believed at one point that the mercury's toxic
effects could be neutralized with heat, but it appears that
science has proven this theory incorrect.
However, Cinnabar lacquer was produced and carved for
many years before the toxic effects of mercury were
The production of a cinnabar
lacquer piece is a fascinating and time consuming process.
First, the base work was produced, whether it was a
vase or a brooch. Next,
layer after layer of cinnabar lacquer was applied.
Often layers would alternate in color to achieve a
multicolor effect in the design, and some pieces would
feature more than 300 coats of lacquer.
Each layer would have to dry before a new one was
applied, so some pieces could take almost half a year to
prepare – some larger pieces could take years! Once
the lacquer layers had reached the correct depth, the
carving process could begin.
Carving a cinnabar lacquer
piece was a very delicate process, and could take the artist
many years to complete.
Care was needed, since a slip could require filling
with many new layers of lacquer or could necessitate a
complete re-do of the entire project.
Once the carving was finished, another layer of
lacquer would be added to seal the carving.
Clear lacquer with no cinnabar was often used in this
final step to keep the piece from spreading mercury to the
skin – this was especially important for jewelry pieces.
Many cinnabar lacquer pieces
are still available at auction, and are highly prized for
the richness of color and intricacy of carving. Minimizing exposure to these older pieces is essential to
prevent any contamination, but pieces kept behind glass can
still be a valuable part of any collection.
While true cinnabar lacquer pieces are hardly ever
produced today, many carvers work with simulated chemical
cinnabar in their lacquer.
This has allowed carved lacquer pieces to remain in
production, without the harmful effects possible when
working with cinnabar.