The first known reference to kintsugi, Cort offered, concerns a 17th-century Japanese warrior who was closely associated with fashionable tea drinking ceremonies of his day. “He was accused of influencing the market for tea bowls by buying boring, plain old bowls, breaking them, having them repaired with kintsugi, and earning good money for them,” Cort explained.
“That seems to indicate that, by the beginning of the 17th century, kintsugi was a commonly used technique for repairing—and at the same time, ornamenting—ceramics for tea,” she added. This was especially true of tea bowls, “which seem to have dropped with a fair amount of frequency,” she laughed. (As further proof, the Freer | Sackler’s esteemed Asian ceramics collection includes many a tea bowl mended with kintsugi.)
The artisans who would mend these broken tea bowls, as well as other ceramic vessels used in tea ceremonies, were Japanese lacquer masters who were trained in various techniques of the lacquer arts. In addition to kintsugi, their skills may have included maki-e, a technique for painting fine gold or silver florals and landscapes onto decorative objects, as well as crafting lacquer trays, boxes, and other designs.
Traditionally, the kintsugi process calls for a Japanese lacquer known as urushi, which is made from tree sap. This material has been used for some 9,000 years by Japanese lacquer masters as a glue, putty, or paint, explained Gen Saratani, a third-generation Japanese lacquer restorer and artist who now works in New York.
The traditional kintsugi method, Saratani said, begins by using the lacquer to glue the ceramic pieces back together. The lacquer is also used as a putty to fill in any gaps or holes where chips from the original vessel might be missing. This mending is the most difficult part, he explained, because the lacquer cannot be removed once it’s dry, and the pieces must be put into place all at once, even if there are 20 different parts.