LACQUER, GOLD AND TEA CEREMONY: THE SECRETS OF JAPANESE NATSUME

The beauty of exceptional Japanese craftsmanship is concentrated in a single object that fits in the palm of your hand: jet-black urushi lacquer with a multitude of layers applied one by one over a long period of time, and a sumptuous decoration created by hand with gold powder. This object is the natsume. At Atelier Ikiwa, we've been obsessed with them for years, searching for them (they hide well !), analysing them (because they can be mistaken by ersatz plastic ones) and bringing back a few from Japan, all of them very precious, to offer them for sale.

Let's discover the natsume, an object that is small in size but immense in its beauty and concentration of Japanese craftsmanship.

NATSUME, AT THE HEART OF THE PRECIOUS

The Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu (茶の湯), sadō (茶道), or chadō (茶道)), which involves the ritual preparation and serving of whipped green matcha, is often associated with the various objects that make it up, and in particular with traditions linked to ceramics: tea bowls (chawan 茶碗), water jars, wagashi plates...

But one of the most important objects in the ceremony is the small lacquer box containing the matcha tea powder, which is displayed (along with its paulownia wood storage box, tomobako 共箱 or kiribako 桐箱, on which the name of the craftsman is inscribed) and handled throughout the ceremony, and examined with great attention by guests.

This lacquer box is the natsume (棗), so called because of its resemblance to the jujube fruit (which bears the same name). Its shape has been calibrated (there are few variations) since the 16th century.

Tea ceremonies are synonymous with exceptional objects, and this is one of the factors that determines the quality of the experience. So natsume must tell a fabulous story, linked to the quality of their lacquer and decoration.

URUSHI LACQUER AND MAKI-E GOLD DECORATION

Like all objects made from genuine Japanese lacquer, successive layers of urushi lacquer are patiently applied to a hand-turned wooden object over a period of weeks, creating a final density of unique, deep, glossy black lacquer. This will be even more spectacular when the incredibly vibrant green powder (a guarantee of the quality of the matcha tea) rests in the hollow of the lacquered natsume, creating a striking contrast.

This video explains the complexity of the different stages involved in preparing and applying lacquer to a natsume.

As for the decoration, it expresses all the expertise and talent of the craftsman, who will create a decoration generally using gold powder applied to wet lacquer which will act as a glue (red lacquer to be visible on black lacquer) with which a motif will have been drawn. It's a job of infinite patience, because the details are so fine and delicate. And because we're in Japan, the technique, called maki-e, has many spectacular variations, such as adding mother-of-pearl or silver powder, and creating raised or recessed motifs. A unique and incredibly precious concentration of expertise, to be discovered in this video.

NATSUME, OBJECTS OF DESIRE

Rightly so these objects are much sought-after by connoisseurs and collectors, and demand far outstrips supply, especially for quality pieces that are bound to increase in value (the most exceptional ones are worth several thousand euros and are in museums), especially as 'industrial' natsume have also been produced, in a standardised way, for less formal use. They are made from moulded plastic and a urethane resin (made from plastic) that has nothing to do with lacquer is sprayed onto the object with a spray gun, giving it a shiny lacquer finish that is quite stunning and hard to differentiate with real urushi lacquer.

A decoration is then applied to the object, either as a decal or hand-painted, a simple one that creates an illusion. These are not 'fake' natsume, they are just produced differently for a more casual use, but they are by no means collector's items. The problem is that it is sometimes very complicated to distinguish a 'real' natsume made of wood, urushi lacquer and gold powder decoration from an 'ersatz' made of plastic.

You need real expertise to understand these nuances and, above all, to be able to systematically identify the quality of the object you have in your hands.

OUR SELECTION OF NATSUME

The natsume we offer (to be found a little further down this page or via this link) are of the highest quality, in Japanese urushi lacquer and gold maki-e decoration, made according to the rules of the art, and come with their tomobako (storage box) on which the name of the craftsman is indicated. A precious gift to give or to treat yourself to start a delightful collection, quintessence of the Japanese soul.

Photos ©️ Atelier Ikiwa

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