When a bowl, teapot or precious vase falls and breaks into a thousand pieces, we throw them away angrily and regretfully. Yet there is an alternative, a Japanese practice that highlights and enhances the breaks thus adding value to the broken object. It’s called kintsugi (金継ぎ), or kintsukuroi (金繕い), literally golden (“kin”) and repair (“tsugi”).
This traditional Japanese art uses a precious metal – liquid gold, liquid silver or lacquer dusted with powdered gold – to bring together the pieces of a broken pottery item and at the same time enhance the breaks.
The technique consists in joining fragments and giving them a new, more refined aspect. Every repaired piece is unique, because of the randomness with which ceramics shatters and the irregular patterns formed that are enhanced with the use of metals.
The scars become what to exhibit
With this technique it’s possible to create true and always different works of art, each with its own story and beauty, thanks to the unique cracks formed when the object breaks, as if they were wounds that leave different marks on each of us.
The invention of the kintsugi technique and its meaning
The glue traditionally used to bring the pieces together is the urushi lacquer, which is being sourced for thousands of years from the Rhus verniciflua plant.
The Chinese have been using it for thousands of years while in Japan, in the Shimahama Tomb in Fukui Prefecture, archaeologists found objects including combs and lacquered trays that were used in the Jomon period about 5,000 years ago.
Initially, this sticky sap was used for its adhesive qualities to create war and hunting weapons.
The kintsugi technique may have been invented around the fifteenth century, when Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate after breaking his favourite cup of tea sent it to China to get it repaired. Unfortunately, at that time the objects were repaired with unsightly and impractical metal ligatures.
It seemed that the cup was unrepairable but its owner decided to try to have some Japanese craftsmen repair it. They were surprised at the shogun’s steadfastness, so they decided to transform the cup into a jewel by filling its cracks with lacquered resin and powdered gold.
The legend seems plausible because the invention of kintsugi is set in a very fruitful era for art in Japan. Under Yoshimasa’s rule the city saw the development of the Higashiyama bunka cultural movement that was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and started the tea ceremony (also called Sado or the Way of Tea) and ikebana (also Kado, way of flowers) traditions, the Noh theatre, the Chinese style of painting with ink.
Even today, it may take up to a month to repair the largest and most refined pieces of ceramics with the kintsugi technique, given the different steps and the drying time required.
How many beautiful messages the kintsugi technique conveys
The kintsugi technique suggests many things. We shouldn’t throw away broken objects. When an object breaks, it doesn’t mean that it is no more useful. Its breakages can become valuable. We should try to repair things because sometimes in doing so we obtain more valuable objects.
This is the essence of resilience. Each of us should look for a way to cope with traumatic events in a positive way, learn from negative experiences, take the best from them and convince ourselves that exactly these experiences make each person unique, precious.