The art of lacquerware (nghề sơn mài) as a means of decorating objects was probably introduced from China during the first century CE. The lacquer itself is actually the resin of a tree which is mixed with coloured pigments and solvents and applied layer after layer to the object’s surface, producing a shiny and durable finish. Other substances, such as eggshell and gold leaf, may be applied to the surface before the lacquer is applied, in which case the finished product is sanded down to reveal the decoration beneath. The high quality of resin from Vietnamese lacquer trees, notably those of Phú Thọ in the north, was a crucial factor in the rapid development of this art form, which became very popular at the court of Đại Việt during the feudal period. Decorated lacquer statues, panels, boxes and trays, some dating back to the Lê era (1428-1527), may still be seen at many temples and pagodas throughout the country.

In subsequent centuries the use of lacquerware was extended to larger items such as wooden chairs and tables, decorated with engraved, painted or inlaid mother-of-pearl (khảm xà cừ) designs. By the 18th century important centres for lacquerware production in the north included Nam Ngư (Hà Nội) and Bình Vọng (Hà Tây) in the north and Thủ Dầu Một (Bình Dương Province) in the south.

Nguyen dynasty screen (VN Hist Museum)As part of their strategy to open up Vietnamese handicrafts to new foreign markets, the French introduced formal training programmes in lacquerware at the Thủ Dầu Một School of Indigenous Arts (Trường Mỹ nghệ Bản xứ Thủ Dầu Một, now the Bình Dương Secondary Technical School) near Sài Gòn from 1901 and at the École supérieure des beaux-arts de l’Indochine (Trường Cao đẳng Mỹ thuật Đông Dương) in Hà Nội from 1930. It was the creativity of staff and students of the latter institution that led to the birth to a new hybrid form, Vietnamese lacquer painting (for more details see Contemporary art below).

Since that time lacquerware has continued to develop into one of the mainstays of the Vietnamese handicraft industry, both at home and abroad. Today’s most popular items include vases, jewel cases, desk sets, trays and vertical blinds.

The traditional lacquer process as practiced in Vietnam is quite complicated and can take up to 75-105 days to finish one piece. Even a simple bowl takes a minimum of 50 days. Your lacquer product has been through twenty stages in the lacquering process before packing.

1. The raw timber product is examined and any cracks and indentations are sealed with natural lacquer from the native lacquer tree in some villages in the south of Vietnam .

2. After checking that the natural lacquer has not affected the intended shape, the product is covered with fine cotton gauze to ensure there will be no cracking at a later stage

3. The natural lacquer is then mixed with finely ground mountain rock, sawdust, and alluvial soil. Using a type of spatula, the product is covered with a thick coating.

4. When the coating has dried the product is placed under water and is polished using a sharpening stone.

5. Using a brush made from natural fibers, a mixture of alluvial soil and natural lacquer is painted onto the product

6. Step 4 is repeated.
7. Step 5 is repeated.
8. Step 4 is repeated.

9. The product is covered with pure natural lacquer.

10. This is the only stage that involves the use of machinery and even this is only to beat the natural lacquer to form a glutinous mixture. The natural lacquer is beaten for 24 hours. The product is then coated thickly.

11. Once again the product is polished under water with a sharpening stone

12. Step 10 is repeated.
13. Step 11 is repeated.

14. The base design is stenciled and the details are painted by hand. This is why every lacquer product is an original piece. No two pieces are quite alike.

15. The surface without design are painted with lacquer and the areas with design are painted with a special clear lacquer.

16. The whole product is given a second coat of clear lacquer.

17. A third coat of clear lacquer is applied.

18. The product is polished with wax.

19. Hinges and locks are fitted.

20. The logo is silk screened onto the base of the product Your lacquer product has thirteen-sixteen layers, please handle it with care, do not soak, but wipe with a damp cloth after use. It can not withstand high temperatures for serving food and hot dishes can not be placed directly onto it. If you are storing your lacquer product in an air-conditioned environment, store it flat with a weight on top for a couple of weeks. The multiple layers make it very durable and you will have years of use if you look after it correctly. Most of all enjoy your lacquer product and remember that it has been totally made by hand in Vietnam . There is no other piece exactly the same as yours.

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