In today's instant-gratification culture, it's difficult to imagine the patience required to make a piece of lacquerware. Taking its name from the lacquer tree, lacquerware objects such as boxes, vases, and pieces of furniture are made from applying layer upon layer of painstakingly treated lacquer sap to a base of cloth or wood. Once applied by brush or immersion, the sap, which is thinned with tung oil and colored with minerals such as cinnabar, is allowed to dry in the dark until hard, at which point another layer is applied, followed by another and then another. This tedious, exacting process is usually repeated scores of times, sometimes hundreds.
Lacquerware is generally thought to have originated in China during the Han period (206 BC to 220 AD), but it was not until the 14th century at the beginning of the Ming dynasty that carved lacquerware become common. In particular, lacquerware cups and vases that had been tinted red by cinnabar were deeply carved. Other lacquerware pieces, from modest trays to room-dividing screens, were inlaid with mother of pearl, ivory, and other materials to produce elaborate scenes against a polished black backdrop.
Beginning in the 16th-century, the lacquerware exported from China was known as Coromandel, so named for the coastline of southeastern India where ships bearing this cargo often docked before heading around the Cape of Good Hope en route to Europe. One of the most popular applications of this type of lacquerware was the screen, so much so that many pieces today are often described as Coromandel screens.
Lacquerware techniques didn't make their way to Japan until the 8th century. There, artisans perfected the practice of sprinkling gold and other pigment-producing materials into the wet lacquer, a technique known as maki-e. In fact, gold was a favorite companion for lacquer among Japanese artisans, who used the precious metal in its solid and ground forms, sometimes polishing it until it glowed, other times using it in relief to give a lacquerware item sculptural properties and dimension. If gold was a favorite metal, small containers called inro were a favorite form. These flask-like boxes with multiple compartments were carried by Japanese men, usually hung from a sash and secured by a piece of netsuke.
By the 17th century, lacquerware was so commonly associated with Japan that the term "japanning" was coined by Europeans to describe just about any piece of furniture or decorative household item that was shiny. Unlike true lacquerware, though, japanned pieces produced in Europe were usually made of wood that had been coated with only a layer or two of shellac.