The Art of Lacquer

The art of lacquer has been practised in Myanmar for over a thousand years. Here, we explore the process behind this historic art form.

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Photo by Sophia Massarella

Lacquer is part of the artistic, cultural and socio-economic fabric of Myanmar. Within Burmese families, skills have been passed down from generation to generation, and today's masters are still producing pieces using traditional production techniques.

Lacquer first came to Myanmar from China’s Yunnan province, from which it derives its Burmese name, Yun De. It flourished under the patronage of the royal court in Mandalay, and many artisans began to work in the region of Bagan, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its ancient pagodas. During the nineteenth century, Bagan’s workshops were creating lacquerware exclusively for the court, with each piece taking more than six months to finish. Some of these stunning pieces survive today in museum collections across the globe.

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Collecting the sap or thitsi, photo courtesy of Black Elephant

As lacquer art spread from China to the surrounding countries the practice changed, as each region relied on a different species of tree for the sap, or thitsi, which is used to create lacquerware. In Myanmar, this is the Melanhorrea Usitata tree. Myanmar lacquerware, therefore, has a distinctive black colour, setting it visually and technically apart from the lacquerware produced in China and Japan.

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An artisan creates a coiled bamboo base

The first stage in lacquerware production is the creation of the base. Bases are traditionally made of bamboo (coiled or woven), bamboo and horsehair, and – less regularly – wood or stone.

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The A Net Dee stage

The next stage is known as the A Net Dee stage. At this point, the black sap of the lacquer tree – also called thitsi – is mixed with cow bone ashes to achieve just the right level of viscosity (this ensures the final product’s durability) and applied to the base. The A Net Dee stage is the most time-consuming stage of the production process, with some of the highest quality lacquerware taking six to seven months, involving the application of multiple layers and intermittent drying in cellars called thyiks.

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Adding the decoration

The final – decorative – stage is called Yun and requires great attention to detail. Artisans engrave intricate patterns into the black lacquer base and then rub these with pigments such as cinnabar and orpiment, layer after layer, to achieve a rich depth of colour. The final touch comes with the application of gold leaf from the royal city of Mandalay.

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Lacquer artisan Zin Mar Swe

Turquoise Mountain's partner workshop in Bagan is Black Elephant. The studio is led by artist Veronica Gritsenko, who has dedicated her professional life to the preservation and revival of the ancient form of lacquer art. The artisans of Black Elephant produce the highest quality lacquerware using traditional production techniques and colour formulas, creating lacquerware pots, bowls and lamps that are both resilient and beautiful.

For more information on any of our products, or to place an order, get in touch with our sales team.