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The Ancient Art of Kintsugi: Piecing Back Broken Pieces with Gold

“All my scars are golden,” English musician Gabrielle Aplin sings in the lively pop anthem Kintsugi. In the song, she describes the state of personal vulnerability and resilience: “Now that I’m shattered, I’m all kinds of me / Was knocked off the shelf, but I’m also complete.” Aplin sings about taking pride in this state of brokenness, highlighting her scars as “golden” parts of herself. She lives with them, not despite them.

The song takes its inspiration from the ancient Japanese art of the same name or kintsukuroi, which, loosely translated, means “golden mending.” Aptly and perfectly named, this practice involves the reparation of broken items (such as ceramics and pottery) through a lacquer of powdered gold, silver, or platinum. 

The idea is that breakage or imperfection is never a source of shame, but rather one of dignity and value. Instead of hiding away the cracks, these are emphasized and worn like badges of honor. Centuries later, kintsugi is still considered one of the most meaningful and innovative art techniques, making its mark throughout different periods and cultures.

A History of Kintsugi and Wabi-Sabi

The origins of kintsugi trace back to feudal Japan, during the Muromachi period in the 1400s. According to the story, the shogun (military lord and commander) Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke one of his precious teacups during a ceremony. Yoshimasa, a patron of the arts, promptly had it sent to China for repair. 

Portrait of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (Source)

When it was returned, he was enraged to see that it was stapled and sewn with iron fractures. For Yoshimasa, durability was not nearly as important as aesthetics. Indeed, the cup was once again functional and useful, but its allure was gone. 

Adamant on restoring its former charm, he had Japanese ceramists repair it. They glued the broken pieces together using expensive lacquer made from tree sap called urushi, and highlighted the fragmented lines with gold dust. Yoshimasa was so happy with the result that the once-broken ceramic became his most favorite piece. 

Such an innovative technique called the attention of other art patrons—not only for its novelty, but also because it took inspiration from a unique philosophy called wabi-sabi. This philosophy, rooted in Zen Buddhism (which was at its peak at the time), believes that a state of imperfection holds more beauty, meaning, and value than any lavish material or idea.

Nothing demonstrates wabi-sabi as much as kintsugi does. The idea that flaws should not be hidden but emphasized is a concept idiosyncratic to Zen practice. When a precious ceramic or pot is broken, to highlight its shattered fragments is to give meaning to its imperfection—and assign its unique value.

Kintsugi Techniques and Methods

The beauty in each kintsugi piece lies in their differences. No work of art will look the same. But practitioners generally keep three methods in mind upon the creation of a piece. 

Each of these methods utilizes the urushi lacquer or other forms of adhesive epoxy such as resin. To highlight the pieces, artisans make use of powder or dust made of gold, silver, or platinum.

Kintsugi exhibit at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin (Source)

Crack repair

The crack repair technique is the simplest and most common one in kintsugi. Here, minimal work is applied: the lacquer is simply used to glue the broken pieces together. 

This also means that the fragments of the bowl or pot are complete, and that the epoxy—which will look like gold veins—holds the piece in its wholeness.

Piece recovery

This kintsugi technique goes a bit further than crack repair. In a broken piece, some fragments may be missing. The piece recovery method replaces the entire missing piece with epoxy, so a whole section of gold, silver, or platinum stands out. 

Unlike the minimalistic method of crack repair, it requires a bit more complex work because it specifically highlights a missing piece, not just its cracks.

Joint call

The joint call technique is interesting because here, a broken piece from another item is used to fill in a missing piece. To keep the pieces together, the same lacquer and powdered metal are used. 

This method is generally the most unconventional one because the different piece truly stands out from the ware. It must be ensured that the fragment from the other material is a precise fit; or, if not, the artist must adjust the thickness and amount of the lacquer.

Kintsugi and Modern Artists

Once used solely in ceramics, pottery, and tablewares, kintsugi has also extended its influence in other parts of life. Many people are drawn to this traditional handicraft, and it has started to evolve in parts of people’s lives. Sometimes, artists use it in functional objects and decorations, like trays and boxes. Other times, it is featured in fashion such as earrings and dresses.

Courtesy of Mio Heki on Instagram (Source)

To some artists, kintsugi is a way of paying homage to their Japanese roots. It is as cultural as it is symbolic. Mio Heki, an urushi artist and kintsugi restorer, told The Kyoto Journal that it is “crucial” for her to keep the craftsmanship of kintsugi alive. “We all have the spirit of our ancestors in our heart,” she said. “We just have to let it out, use it and nurse it so it grows and develops together with us.”

Other ceramic artists, such as Tomomi Kamoshita, see kintsugi as a way to keep connected to nature. Kamoshita gathers pieces of glass and broken ware from the sea, and makes her own uniquely shaped pieces from her collection. It is how she takes inspiration—literally—from the world, and creates pieces from its long-lost materials. It is her way of “reviving what the waves have sent us,” she said.

Kintsugi: A Life Metaphor and Lesson

Aside from the philosophies it presents, kintsugi also helps nature because of its sustainability. Broken pieces, rather than being tossed and thrown away, are utilized again and beautified in unique ways. Such a view will help us keep in perspective if “useless” things can truly be repurposed.

It is also good to remember its connection with nature and wabi-sabi. Flowers, for instance, are not patterned after specific blueprints. Still, with every missing petal and every torn leaf, there is value, depth, and meaning. Nature produces with no standard of perfection—and this is something that might help us even further in life.

This poignant relationship between kintsugi and nature is something kept in mind by Heki, too: “Because urushi and kintsugi art is all-natural, it is a good way to remind ourselves that we are all part of nature, being pieces of our universe.” 

And perhaps most important of all: we have witnessed far too much turmoil caused by the permanent state of imperfection. People find such flaws among themselves and in their environments. But kintsugi (and wabi-sabi) reminds us that there is value in these. Rather than tuck them away in disguise, we deal with them, take them in stride, and treat them like scars of pride we have gathered in battle.

Indeed, the complexity of kintsugi goes beyond its aesthetic merit. The principles behind this art help us navigate the world more wisely, reconnect with nature, and prompt us to reflect on less-than-ideal conditions of life. 

Are we truly so weak when our flaws come to light? As Aplin sang: “Knocked off the shelf, but I’m also complete.” With the art of kintsugi, we are taught that imperfection does not take away our value. On the contrary: it adds to it.

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