Kintsugi - repairing broken ceramics with gold and other metals

Nothing in life is forever, everything is in flux. According to legend, the Japanese Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa also had to experience this ancient wisdom in the 15th century. In one of his many battles his beloved Chawan broke. This tea bowl is an integral part of the Japanese tea ceremony - an important ritual that is indispensable as a source of a healthy mind, especially in adverse conditions. When the war was over, he brought the shards to China for repair and was severely disappointed before the result. The Chinese ceramists had repaired his tea bowl with metal clips, he had hoped for something less invasive. In Japan, he suggested to the ceramic artisans that they come up with a method to repair his Chawan in an aesthetically pleasing way. Since the shogun was known as a glorious person who fiercely defended the borders, repairing the tea bowl was all the more tricky for the potters. They experimented and after a long time, probably fearing for the reputation of their guild, they achieved the breakthrough. They used Urushi Lacquer for gluing and in the case of the Shogun they naturally embedded gold dust in the glue. The latter was very happy that he could use his Chawan again without feeling repelled and for the craftsmen it also turned out well: Their reputation and prestige were preserved and they had created a new technique: The Kintsugi.

Wabi-Sabi or the beauty at the flaw

In historical Japan, a new principle in Zen Buddhism developed in the 15th century: the Wabi Sabi. The simplicity as well as the simplicity of nature and the objects based on nature came to the fore. Wabi-Sabi can be understood as the equivalent of the first of the four noble truths (Dukkha) of Buddhism. According to Wabi-Sabi, the real beauty is not obvious, but appears hidden and can only be discovered through closer examination. This also includes visible defects such as cracks and scratches as well as unevenness. These are especially appreciated and emphasized in the direction of Buddhism. This is where the Kintsugi with its striking and characteristic golden lines fits in perfectly. It almost seems as if golden roots run like lifelines through the ceramic, a stroke of luck!

Initially this arm of Buddhism met with resistance from the rich Japanese, but eventually they traditionally used the tea ceremony to show off their luxury. However, the supposedly broken tea bowls were very popular with the tea masters and so it came about that Kintsugi as well as Raku ceramics became Japanese cultural assets in the course of time and it is impossible to imagine the Wabi-Sabi aesthetics without them.

große mit Kintsugi reparierte Amphore - Nahansicht

The crack is part of it

The crack is an important part of the ceramic object, it is part of its history. It's no different than in humans: Scars and wrinkles are part of life and are proof of a lived life. Kintsugi picks up where he left off, looking back on more than 500 years of history. Once repaired, the repaired objects are more valuable than before, just imagine the working hours of the puzzle work. Likewise, an alert eye is needed to ensure that no wrong pieces are glued together. But especially in the case of our Shogun, one factor is particularly striking: what was once thought lost becomes usable again. This joy is known to everyone and with old and transitory things it is especially high if one is granted a small respite. The Japanese Kintsugi can be understood as resilience - sticking is a part of life and mistakes can happen. The appreciation of these repaired ceramics even goes so far that pieces are broken to be able to repair them with the Kintsugi technique. Because only with Kintsugi can one obtain a unique piece of craftsmanship par excellence. In order to restore the broken ceramics to their original use and condition, the shards of Kintsugi are reassembled with glue, Urushi lacquer.

The Urushi lacquer

In colloquial language this lacquer is also called China lacquer and it is the wound sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua) which has been used in Asia for about three thousand years for the production of lacquer. This craft has a long tradition in China and Japan. In several layers of colored Urushi is applied absolutely dust-free at high humidity and at about 30 C.

In this way, enchanting handicraft treasures such as Kyūdō bows and the sheaths of Japanese swords and armour (Yoroi) are created. But also objects of daily use such as bowls, chopsticks, trays and furniture are treated with Urushi lacquer, because the coating has a shine and depth that can neither be achieved with shellac polish nor with modern synthetic resin lacquers. The idea of using it as an adhesive, however, came to the potters in the 15th century. The lacquer has surprisingly diverse properties.

Upcycling for centuries

Freely translated Kintsugi means "to stick with gold". The name is programme and probably the first form of upcycling. Nowadays, Kintsugi is becoming more and more popular, because the problem with the shards still exists. Mostly it hits the old inherited vase of the grandmother or the fine tea cups of the aunt. All these pieces, whether glass, ceramics or porcelain, can be brought back to life with Kintsugi and the gnawing marks of the tooth of time can be removed. However, this technique has the disadvantages mentioned above and requires a master craftsman who knows his craft and a lot of time to process the traditional way. Drying must be absolutely dust-free and can take several weeks with a single coat! By the way, the old Japanese masters pulled their ceramics on rafts out to sea, because only there it is absolutely dust-free. The glue used today for Kintsugi is very similar in appearance to Urushi lacquer, but has slightly different properties. Then as now, the spirit of Kintsugi is not to cover the seams, on the contrary. They are highlighted with various metallic colours and direct the eye to a completely new beauty. The once broken pieces are smoothly joined together, finely sanded and ground, then polished to create a new overall picture that is in no way inferior to the original. This philosophy, which originates from Zen Buddhism, is contrary to the widespread view in the western world of shards and their repair. They bring good luck and accompany a hen party, but nobody would repair his old crockery and certainly not with gold. In Asia, and especially in Japan, people appreciate the age, imperfection, second-hand and the associated patina of ceramics and the traces they leave behind. Kintsugi is the bridge between East and West because the aesthetics and the idea of the traces of life inherent in these ceramics are universally understood.

große mit Kintsugi reparierte Schale
The most important thing about Kintsugi, however, is not the physical appearance of the actual object. What is important is the beauty and meaning that the viewer experiences through the object.
Muneaki Shimode
Kintsugi master from Kyoto
großer mit Kintsugi reparierter Teller

Yobitsugi and Makienaoshi as extensions of Kintsugi

Apart from the supposedly simple joining of the broken pottery, there are two other techniques based on Kintsugi that create something unique. In Yobitsugi repair, a (missing) piece of pottery is replaced by the piece of another pottery. Mostly you choose a different patterned one - if different, please do it in a way that you can see it. The third technique based on Kintsugi is the Makienaoshi technique. Here (missing) shards are completely replaced with several layers of Ushuri lacquer. This technique is mostly used to restore the original pattern.
Perfection needs no beauty and Kintsugi illustrates this in a brute catchy way. Many of today's works of art would only be average without Kintsugi. For example, the plate with bamboo leaves from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is without its golden Kintsugi only an old plate with a chipped edge. The history of the impermanence of a piece can be read in this way. It runs like a meandering river through time and is the motor that drives development.