Travelers visiting Vietnam often notice the artistic use of lacquerware in almost everything, from paintings and wall hangings to wine holders and jewelry boxes. Lacquer is a natural substance, the toxic sap from a lacquer tree. Ancient people noticed that this sticky sap was like a natural plastic, which could be used to coat objects. As it becomes hardened after contacting with air, then created a hard shell and resistant to heat and moisture.
The art of lacquerware dates back to some 2,000 years ago in Vietnam, and lacquered articles have been seen in the ancient tombs and royal palaces – which were a symbol of the notability and the wealthy. In the old days, lacquerware was more functional, and only used to coat furniture, pottery and other household items for durability.
Specially there are remained corpses of Buddhist Zen monks covered by lacquer since 16th century, this is a very unique technique of burial in Vietnam. In the water puppetry, a very famous traditional performance art of Vietnam, the lacquer covers make the puppets livelier and more soulful than in any other kind of theatre.
Lacquered decorative items also associated with religious beliefs to serve spiritual life, such as worshiping in pagodas, temples, communal houses and palaces. These include lacquered columns, parallel sentences, sanctuaries, sets of eight weapons, King’s palanquins and altars.
Since early 1930s, lacquer came into paintings and other kinds of art when the first Vietnamese artists, graduated from the Indochina College of Fine Arts, explored how to use gold and silver leafs, eggshell and pearl shells together with grinding techniques to bring traditional Vietnamese’s use of lacquer to lacquer paintings.
So lacquering is known as “son mai” in Vietnamese, and there are many steps in the process of making lacquerware. The medium is based on a resin extracted from the “son” tree, that inhabits the mountains of Phu Tho Province. The resin is harvested in the same way as rubber, by making an incision and letting the sap flow. Fresh lacquer is whitish, and turns brown upon exposure to air.
The first step of lacquering is to make shape, either from wood or fiber-board. Artisans will carefully ensure there is no cracks or indentations before covering the shape with a coat of resin for protection’s purpose. The next step will be applying lacquer, a thick layer of mixture made of natural lacquer, fine ground mountain rock, sawdust and alluvial soil will be applied on the item. The item will then be covered with fine cotton gauze to make sure there will be no cracking in dry and cold weather.
When the lacquer-applied-item is dry, artisans will cover it with another layer of natural lacquer. It will be then sanded under the water to make it flat and smooth before being laid with one more layer of mixed lacquer. After applying 6 to 8 layers of lacquer on the item, artisans will start decorating the item.
At this step, the item could be inlayed with eggshell, gold or silver leaf. When it is dry, the item will be sanded under water repeatedly several times. Of cause, these techniques required skills, meditative attention and an eye on the details in order to achieve consistency and a flow of movement in the pattern.
The final step is polishing, when item is meticulously water sanded by hand to enhance the delicate beauty of the decorative patterns. The more the item is shiny, the more its color becomes deeper. Therefore, this final polishing step decides the quality of each lacquer piece. In other words, rubbing out is nothing more than abrading the surface until it’s nice and smooth.
As a Vietnam luxury travel company, Incense Travel can include a meeting with famous Vietnamese artists for a lacquer art tour in all Vietnam holidays you take with us. Contact our travel expert to start creating your tailor-made Vietnam tours.