Chinese Cinnabar Lacquerware

Lacquerware is any object that has been coated with lacquer, a substance that produces a very hard and durable finish. Lacquer is resistant to water damage, acid and abrasion. The most common type of lacquer comes from a specific type of tree, called the lac or varnish tree. When the tree is the proper size and age, slices are made into the bark and the sap is collected. Great care is taken while doing this, as any contact made between the raw sap and human skin can cause serious skin irritation. The art of lacquerware has been practiced in China and Japan since before the modern era. It has also been practiced in other areas, notably India. Indian lacquer is sometimes made from the secretions of a specific type of insect, rather than the sap of the varnish tree.

Cinnabar lacquerware is a very distinctive type. Lacquer can be applied without pigments added, and results in the piece having a translucent finish. With Cinnabar laquerware, a pigment is added to get the deep red color that is called Cinnabar, or China Red.

The name of this type comes from the mineral called cinnabar. This mineral was ground into a pigment, added to the lacquer and gave the piece a deep red color. Cinnabar is the mineral mercuric sulfide, and was also used in thermometers years ago. As this name implies, the metal mercury is present in the mineral, and when true cinnabar was used as a pigment, there was a real danger of mercury poisoning from just handling the finished lacquerware. Mercury was also released into the air when artisans ground the pigments, and the toxicity of the mineral was known in ancient China, for only slaves and convicts were used to mine it. Antique cinnabar lacquerware in existence usually has been coated with a clear protective coating that prevents mercury from leaching out of it, and handling of it is held to a minimum. These antiques are not on regular display, as they are photosensitive and natural or artificial light can cause the piece to turn brown. While the name is still used, there is no cinnabar in modern cinnabar lacquerware, It has been replaced by non-toxic pigments that emulate (but do not duplicate) the color of the original.

The creation of a cinnabar lacquerware piece begins with application of coats of lacquer onto the foundation of the piece. Up to 500 coats of lacquer are applied, according to the style of the artwork to be carved and the size of the piece. Each coating of lacquer is applied, and allowed to dry before the next is applied. It can literally take years for a piece to receive the needed coats of lacquer.

Once the piece has the desired layers of lacquer, a highly skilled artisan carves the ornate designs into the lacquer that cinnabar lacquerware is noted for. The tools of the artisan must be sharp, and his skills proficient, for the lacquer is very hard. Sometimes layers of different colors of lacquer have been applied, and the artisan has to carve at the required depth to bring out the contrasting colors. While ancient cinnabar consisted of most any type and size of object, modern cinnabar items are usually beads for jewelry, small boxes, plates, trays or other small items.