Recently, kintsugi has enjoyed an explosion in Western popularity, owing to a growing appreciation for Japanese aesthetics and a pushback against rampant materialism, coupled with months of quarantine and an increasingly abundant supply of kintsugi kits. While various forms of ceramic repair date back to prehistory, the techniques and ideas of kintsugi have transformed this once utilitarian practice into an artistic and philosophical mode of expression.
Kintsugi (金継ぎ - gold joinery) is a ceramic repair technique in which chips, cracks, and broken pieces are repaired with urushi lacquer, which is either mixed or dusted with precious metal powder, typically gold or silver. Rather than hiding the damage, the use of precious metals highlights the flaws, which tells the story of the item’s wear and repair over time, expressing an acceptance of the transient and imperfect nature of being. The earliest examples were often repaired with simple black or red urushi lacquer, which is less ornate and more wabi or humble. Though the technique of lacquer repair dates as far back as the Jomon period, it was supposedly first introduced to the tea room by Furuta Oribe (古田織部) in the late 16th to early 17th century.
As such, the technique and philosophy of kintsugi has long been associated with chanoyu (茶の湯) or the Japanese tea ceremony, where it has been used on many famous pieces. However, the link between the two traditions actually predates either of them.
This can be seen in the famous Bakōhan (馬蝗絆), a delicate and elegant 13th century Longquan celadon tea bowl from China that was owned by the 15th century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利 義政). The story goes that Yoshimasa noticed cracks in the chawan and sent it back to China for a replacement. Instead, he received the very same bowl repaired with large metal staples, as no new bowl could be made to match the beauty of the original.
From here, the stories diverge somewhat, with Yoshimasa either liking the result in some accounts, or disliking the crudeness of the staples in others. In either case, Bakōhan laid the aesthetic groundwork for repairing and restoring ceramics, though it is not known when lacquer-based repair work became the preferred technique. Additionally, the stark contrast of the plain metal staples against the delicate celadon, which highlighted the damage instead of hiding it, struck a chord with the asthestes of the time, who pioneered the concept of sabi (寂), which is in part, an appreciation for the beauty of age and wear.
Though tea practices already existed in Japan at the time, it was only in the late 16th century that chanoyu matured and developed into the form we recognise today. Part of this development was the rise of wabicha (侘茶), a style of tea practice that pursued a rustic and modest aesthetic, called wabi (侘) which preferred simplicity and imperfection over the perfection and ostentation of the Chinese aesthetic that previously dominated. This new style of tea ceremony reached its zenith with famed chajin, Sen-no-Rikyū (千利休) who began using very cheap and simplistic utensils that were previously considered ‘beneath’ the practice of tea.
Rikyū’s chief student and successor as the leading tea figure in Japan, Furuta Oribe (古田織部), is often credited with bringing the first lacquer-repaired work into the tea room. The story goes that Oribe fell in love with an Iga-yaki mizusashi (水者) that he had commissioned, but it had cracked dramatically during the kiln’s firing. Rather than commision a new one, he had the cracks repaired with plain lacquer and named it Yabure-bukuro (破袋 - burst pouch) (which can be seen in a rare unboxing here).
Yabure-bukuro was not Oribe’s sole contribution to the world of kintsugi. He famously took an Ō-ido chawan that he thought was too big and broke it into four pieces, ground them smaller, and reassembled the bowl with lacquer. This deliberate distortion moves beyond the aesthetics of wabi and aligns with Oribe’s own aesthetic philosophy called hyouge (ひょうげ/剽げ/へうげ) which roughly translates to ‘playful’, ‘charming’, ‘jocular’, etc. The bowl was named Jūmonji (十文字 - ‘10’ character) due to the cuts resemblance to the kanji for ‘10’: 十
Another famous lacquer-repaired Ido chawan is the Tsutsu-i-zutsu (筒井筒) chawan which was accidentally broken while in the possession of Toyotomi Hideoyshi. This too was repaired with unadorned lacquer as was the custom of the time.
It is not entirely known when gold was first applied to highlight the repair lines, but it appears to have become common practice during the 17th century in the Edo era. During this time, tea practice became more formalised and commercialised, and as such aesthetics moved away from the extreme wabi of Rikyū’s time towards a more ornate, decorative style. During this time, kintsugi evolved from an expression of wabi asceticism and sabi transience into a decorative art form. For the first time, some kintsugi repaired pieces were considered more valuable than intact ceramics. Below is a chawan called Seppō (雪峯) by Hon'ami Kōetsu (本阿弥光悦). Rather than subtle lacquer, the gold repair lines on this chawan are particularly bold and striking.
In addition to its historic ties to wabi, sabi, chanoyu, and Edo-era aesthetics, kintsugi’s modern popularity is owed in part to its embodiment of the Japanese notion of mottainai (勿体無い), a phrase that roughly equates to English ‘waste not, want not’ and ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. As we as a society are ever more acutely aware of the unsustainability of rampant consumerism and materialism, kintsugi has resurged as a traditional form of DIY ‘upcycling’.
Though traditional lacquer-based kintsugi techniques take years to master, modern resin-based kits have made it more accessible. As such modern kintsugi exists on an extremely wide spectrum, from complex artistic expressions using traditional techniques, to at-home epoxy repairs to extend the life of a bowl in a beautiful way. Each of these captures a different aspect of kintsugi’s long and rich history.