Remarkably resistant to water, acid, and in some cases, heat, lacquer—a natural plastic—has been used by East Asian craftsmen for centuries to create highly-detailed inlaid decorative boxes.
Although it can take up to twelve months of labor to make one of the treasured boxes, the results are nothing short of stunning. It comes as little surprise, then, that some of the best pieces can fetch thousands of dollars.
According to the MET, raw lacquer is collected each year by extracting the sap from notches cut in trees. After a heating process to remove impurities, it can then be applied to nearly any surface—with many applications demanding over 30 coats.
Among others who are keeping up with the age-old lacquer technique is Lee Kwang-Woong. A specialist in the traditional Korean style of decoration, Lee is no stranger to creating inlaid lacquer boxes from scratch.
From harvesting sap from a lacquer tree, to charcoal polishing and curing, Lee’s painstaking—yet satisfying—process of creating a box inlaid with delicate shell decoration is definitely worth five minutes of your time today:
Find out more about ancient lacquer techniques over at the MET.