Maki-e (蒔絵, literally: splashed drawing (or design) is a Japanese lacquer decoration technique in which drawings, patterns and letters are drawn with lacquer on the surface. Lacquer is a natural glaze discovered approximately 5,000 years ago in ancient Asia, when it was discovered that the sap of the Rhus vernicflue tree, commonly known as the lacquer tree, possessed qualities of adhesion and resistance that no other enamel or paint could surpass. This tree, a relative of poison ivy, can today only be found in southern China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan (where the name for the substance and the tree are the same: Urushi).
The art of lacquering
The extraction of the sap is mainly carried out in summer, only in trees that have reached a minimum thickness of ten centimeters and are more than ten years old. Once the sap has been extracted, it is subjected to a purification process, adding dehydrating products and dyes. When the process is finished, the urushi lacquer is mixed with colored pigments, generally red or black.
The special characteristics of this lacquer are very different from those that can be obtained in other ways. The oils that compose it, in contact with humidity and ambient temperature, allow it to solidify without altering its composition, giving the sensation that it always remains moist, which gives the pieces treated with urushi a unique shine. For dozens of centuries, this method was used to treat all kinds of objects, from wood to armor, strengthening them and turning them into authentic works of art. The lacquer acted by protecting the objects from most of the external agents that could damage them.
Once the lacquer is dry, it becomes an almost impenetrable element, extremely resistant to heat and water, which cannot be altered by salt or chemical products. But above all, what makes it most special is the beauty of its finish. Only natural lacquer is capable of producing such deep and exquisite shades.
Lacquer techniques vary from country to country, depending on their quality and the objects on which it is applied. The three most representative categories of lacquer arts are carving, inlaying and, of course, maki-e.
THE BEGINNING OF MAKI-E
During the Nara Period (between 710 and 794) in Japan, the artistic technique of maki-e was initiated, consisting of drawing, through the sprinkling of gold or silver powder on wet urushi, various decorative figures. This process, enormously complex in technique and learning, became popular over the centuries until it became a very popular decorative method in the middle of the Edo Period (approx. 17th century). This works became popular among Japanese royalty, and the title of Maki-e Master was established for artists who excelled.
Each piece made using maki-e is unique. A craftsman is in charge of varnishing the piece, transferring the drawing on the urushi, tracing each line, gently sprinkling the gold dust on it. All the steps are handmade, unique and unrepeatable. For the most complex pieces it can take more than one hundred and thirty steps and three months of work.
Today, there are several writing brands that perpetuate this artistic tradition and present a collection of fountain pens decorated according to the Maki-e technique.
The application of maki-e in the world of writing came from Ryosuke Namiki, founder of Namiki. Although the company began by focusing on the manufacture of golden nibs, Namiki and his collaborator Masao Wada soon began to produce their own fountain pens. The pens of the time, made of ebonite, needed a protective coating to insulate them from agents that could damage the delicate material, including the ink itself. Namiki decided to use urushi on ebonite and, in a quest to enhance its beauty, to use maki-e techniques to draw different designs that would give his pens a unique style.
The designs made by Namiki masters are not mere imagination, as they all have a meaning and tell stories or refer to Japanese traditions or legends. Today, the process of making a Namiki fountain pen remains the same as it was when the company began. The fountain pen is made in resin, and then the urushi lacquer is applied to it. The lacquer has to be wet and, with a brush, layer after layer is applied. The more layers of urushi lacquer the fountain pen has, the more expensive it will be. For example, a high-end fountain pen has up to 25-30 layers of urushi lacquer.
A clear example of this is the Namiki Yukari Royale Peony & Butterfly, where a beautiful drawing of the peony flower carefully made by master craftsman Misa is seen. The peony has been used in Asia since ancient times for its medicinal virtues, and unmistakable beauty and sweet aroma making this flower a symbol of spring in the art world. In this select piece you can see three beautiful peonies with butterflies around them. The pink peony represents love, the white peony represents modesty and the mauve peony celebrates friendship.
Lacquering. Drawing. Dusting. Polishing. These four processes are repeated continuously to obtain a beautiful Namiki Maki-e piece, regardless of the collection to which they belong. Attentive to the needs of collectors, Namiki has created collections that adapt in theme and price to the whims of those who crave them: from the more affordable Nippon Art, to the select Togadashi-maki-e and Taka-maki-e present in the Yukari Royale collection.
From the hand of fashion designer Shun-jen Lin, we find the Japanese brand Taccia. The pillar on which this brand is based is the firm conviction that writing instruments should be affordable, elegant and created with high quality materials. Within this brand we can find a collection with limited edition maki-e pieces: Taccia Miyabi Maki-e LE.
Made from pure natural ebonite, each piece in the Miyabi Maki-e collection is made with the maki-e craft technique and sealed with urushi to conjure images of nature. All of their pieces are fitted with a hermetically sealed cap that softens the inflow and feature an 18-karat two-tone gold nib, and each design is limited to 30 pieces worldwide.