Gen Saratani’s design studio in Long Island City, New York is small, neat, warm. A fan hums in the corner. The light is soft. Decorations are sparse — a gold-lacquered zebra print here, a decorative urushi tree on a shelf there. A small scythe next to the tree.
Saratani is an expert in the practice of kintsugi, or gold joinery. He is one of the only full-time urushi, or gold lacquer, artists practicing the craft in its original and purest form outside of Japan. He is, by my research, the only one doing so in the US. Kintsugi, an offshoot of urushi, is the practice of repairing broken pottery by joining the cracks or broken pieces with gold lacquer. Saratani’s family has been practicing urushi and kintsugi for three generations. Japanese artists have been practicing it for centuries longer than that, but kintsugi is still relatively new in America.
He is one of the only full-time urushi, or gold lacquer, artists practicing the craft in its original and purest form outside of Japan.
Saratani unwraps a stack of gray tiles and lays them down on the white worktable. To the far left is plain slate. To the right, a polished, gold-ornamented slate. “Kintsugi is just one part of urushi, our technique to repair broken ceramics,” he explains, motioning to a shelf on which a small tree sits. “This is the urushi tree, and we scratch this tree to collect the sap.” This sap hardens when it’s exposed to the air, and it’s used with gold powder to decorate everything from ornamental boxes to trays. He covers the gold and lacquer mix with another layer of lacquer, then grinds the dried surface with a whetstone, yielding a polished surface of golden decoration.
The story that has been passed down in Saratani’s family is this: the daughter to the urushi technique, kintsugi, began with the ancient Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony calls for participants to use only the best teacups and pots, but, if these items broke, there was no adequate technique to repair the items. So, Japanese artists started experimenting with urushi. They tried using the sap on its own to repair teapots and cups, but though the sap was strong, it dried brown — which was aesthetically unpleasing. So, the artists began applying the same gold powder that they used in decorative urushi techniques, and realized that this made the formerly-broken ceramics into new, beautiful, reborn items.
In the centuries since, kintsugi has popped up more and more outside of Japan. Because of this proliferation, it may seem simple to track down authentic work. It’s not. When I asked Saratani how someone might acquire an authentic kintsugi item, he had a simple answer: “send it to me.” He isn’t the only one who would tell you this — ceramics shops around the world send customers to Saratani, even instead of sending them to Japan. This is due to Saratani’s authenticity and expertise in process.
“No one does this technique anymore,” he tells me humbly. “I am the only one who does it the right way.”
There are “no kintsugi masters” in America, Saratani explains, because one must first become a “lacquer master” to master kintsugi. Potters often skip the lacquer master step and move forward with a lesser form of kintsugi. A quick Etsy search will yield much cheaper forms of “kintsugi” made by potters who use gold paint or glue instead of urushi with actual gold powder, on pottery they have broken themselves. “No one does this technique anymore,” he tells me humbly. “I am the only one who does it the right way.” The process is costly (a custom, gold-filled repair can run anywhere from $300 for a plate with a few cracks, to $700 or $900 for a bowl broken into several small pieces), but hard-won. And given its difficulty, this traditional, patient technique is slowly falling out of practice, even in Japan.
Authentic materials, like Japanese urushi sap (which can only be harvested at certain times of the year), can be hard to track down, and customers can misunderstand the amount of time and effort needed to conduct a repair (in complex repairs, Saratani uses a high-powered microscope to see the nuances of a crack). But Saratani is set not only on preserving this technique in his own work, but passing it down to the next generation of artists.
Before I leave, Saratani walks over to his desk to show me the impeccably kept tools atop it. He picks up a wood-handled brush with delicate bristles, explaining that these bristles consist of — unexpectedly — human hair. The hair runs the length of the wooden handle, and as time goes by, Saratani will whittle away at the wood to expose fresh bristles beneath. They were given to him by his father, Tomizo, and Saratani hopes to pass them down to the next generation. “A child?” I ask. “No, not yet,” he says. But urushi, and by proxy, kintsugi, will not end with him. “I look for a way to pass this on to the next generation,” he says earnestly. Whether that takes the form of his own child or an apprentice, only time will tell. But as with Saratani’s work thus far, when he does pass urushi on to the next generation, it will take time, it will take effort, and it will be beautiful.