|Urushi is to many, a miraculous substance. It is the sap from the lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a plant closely related to poison ivy, and as such, considerably toxic. As with its better known cousins, the poison ivies, oaks and sumacs, contact with the tree can cause an unbearable affliction of rashes and blisters. Yet somehow, in some ancient time, someone realized that this liquid—the life-blood of this wondrous tree—holds a hidden potential.
Urushi, as it has come to be known by its Japanese name, naturally cures through a process of oxidation and polymerization into a material with remarkable properties for a natural substance. Once hardened, urushi forms a tough and scratch resistant surface impervious to water, alcohol, minor heat, acids and bases. Because of these properties, as well as its characteristics in application, urushi has an incredible versatility in use from architectural elements and utilitarian wares to fine arts and crafts renown for their beauty and intricacy.
With proper care and skill, urushi creates a wonderful luster that, when combined with countless different decorative techniques, can create objects that are as functional as they are beautiful. Metal powders, nacre, and eggshells, or even substances such as albumen, tofu and flour can all be used in conjunction with urushi to create exquisite patterns and designs derived sometimes from the skill of intellect and craft and sometimes from the whim of chance and serendipity.
Regardless of the technique, the end results capable of urushi are nothing short of miraculous. Yet in this modern time and age, where meticulous crafts of the hand are being threatened by industrialized mass production, the use of urushi has slowly been at a decline. When once Japanware was considered at the pinnacle of the functional arts, it is now little known outside of Asia and specialized circles.
Nevertheless, the craft of using urushi has not yet died out, and there are still many discoveries to be made as craftsmen continue test new techniques and combine modern materials with ancient knowledge. And so, hopefully, the beauty of this wonderful craft will be passed on through many more generations to come.