Kintsugi literally means “gold joints”. This technique of restoring ceramics is the art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer and gold dust, thus revealing the traces of the repair, while allowing the object to be reused. Legend has it that in the 15th century the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged bowl of tea back to China for repair. Unfortunately, it was repaired in the Chinese tradition, fixed with metal staples. Following this event, Japanese craftsmen reportedly developed a more aesthetic restoration process. In fact, kintsugi may have appeared a little later in Japan, during the Edo period in the 17th century.
Myriam Greff is a kintsugi specialist. With her, we come back to the particularities of this restoration technique, how it allows the artist or restorer to work on the time and emotions that link an object to a person. The kintsugi is indeed a creator of emotions: not only does it highlight the fractures inherent in the broken object, making them most visible where the illusionist restoration will seek above all to make them disappear. Moreover, this repair is done with gold, the most symbolic of metals.
What was your background and how did you get into the practice of Kintsugi?
I followed a master’s degree in heritage restoration, with a specialization in ceramics and glass. I learned about the restoration of illusionists and archaeological objects, with knowledge of chemistry applied to the degradation of objects. Ceramics is a difficult speciality because it has lost 70% of its value in 10 years. Indeed, our interiors are no longer suitable for such decorative trinkets. So antique dealers no longer do, or much less, restore their objects.
I discovered kintsugi at the Guimet Museum. I was so formatted by the idea of a restoration that was supposed to be invisible that I didn’t understand this type of work at first: that’s all you could see! As a restorer, when we work for museums, we are asked to make the restoration visible but not at first sight, whereas here it was the opposite, the first thing that appeared was this golden thread. But in ten years the eye changes, and I take pleasure in working on this idea of volume. The trigger came after many requests from contemporary ceramic collectors. The first thing they asked me was to make kintsugi. I told myself that there was a niche, that this technique was rare, environmentally friendly: indeed, it was good to no longer have to use toxic products while allowing the reuse of these objects, most of them utilitarian.
Where does the Kintsugi technique come from? What is this type of repair (on which supports, for which objects)? What are the different branches of this technique, particularly with regard to the choice of materials?
Kintsugi comes from the word kin, gold, and tsugi, joint. It is the art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer and gold dust, thus revealing the traces of the repair. Multiple variations are possible such as the gintsugi, with silver joints; the tintsugi, with tin; the urushi-tsugi with pure lacquer, or the yobi-tsugi by which a shard from another piece is used. If in theory the aesthetics of the object determines the choice of material, in practice I am only asked for kintsugi. Even if sometimes silver would marry well, people want gold because it remains the ultimate restoration. Moreover, if silver is combined with many colours, gold is combined with everything. I made a gintsugi once, at the request of a faience factory.
Originally the kintsugi was designed for the tea ceremony, like the chawan bowl, which is well open for easy access. With a closed shape, there is no access to the interior, which prevents a complete restoration. Nevertheless, by mixing contemporary techniques with traditional techniques, I can achieve a result that would be impossible to achieve by using lacquer alone. For example, I worked on a roller vase for which I couldn’t put lacquer inside: I had to use synthetic glue with a gold finish for the inaccessible parts. But I only use these techniques when there is no other solution and by informing my clients. I was able to do a kintsugi restoration on crystal, which is not supposed to be feasible because the lacquer is brown and therefore remains visible. If kintsugi means the final visual impression, everything is possible. On the other hand, not everything will be possible if you only want to use lacquer. There may be some on bamboo, because lacquer is traditionally used to work on wood, or also on jades. But each time it remains solid materials in volume.
Kintsugi, unlike illusionist repair, is a transformative technique of the object that highlights its cracks. Thus, restoration can become an art in Japan because it is an opportunity to transform a pre-existing work into a new work.
I like to talk about metamorphosis. The object is no longer the same but it regains its function, which is not the case with illusionist restoration. Lacquerers would probably consider kintsugi more as a philosophy than as an art. But the pieces I create I consider them as such because I will choose the quantity of gold, the size of the joint, make changes to the decoration… On the other hand, the restoration part remains craftsmanship because we do not choose how the ceramic breaks. There are more or less beautiful breaks, lands that crack more or less well depending on their crumbling. We create a new object but with the help of time passing. In the end there is a big part of the unknown. Kintsugi adds value to parts that may not have any value. I also have a lot of requests for parts that are not Japanese, which means that people open up. I want this art to be recognized, even if it cannot be accessible to everyone. And broken ceramics that seem unsaleable can have some nice surprises in store: I have a Ming vase that has gone back to China!
Kintsugi and restoration philosophies
In Europe, modern theories of restoration were developed in the 19th century. Among the main thinkers, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin are opposed. If for the former, restoration makes it possible to restore the unity of the object or place and to erase the roughness, for the latter it must bend to the passage of time, which is also an essential component of the object. By revealing the fractures of the object, the Kintsugi also places himself on a particular field of thought in restoration?
Viollet-le-Duc is in favour of an excessive restoration, which is no longer even really a restoration because we are creating a state that has never existed. It is thanks to him that we have the Venice Charter, which states that in the absence of 70% of the object or documents, we do not have the right to intervene. We cannot recreate things from our imagination when restoration is literally “to do it again as it is”. Ruskin leans for a certain admiration of the ruins, with an almost Chinese mentality, because they do not restore. In fact, the story of the jade ring for which I made a kintsugi is funny because it is an object that is not supposed to be restored. Thus, the kintsugi occupies an ambiguous place in this debate. You can find the contemplative side of the damaged object that you have at Ruskin’s, while being close to Viollet-le-Duc because the restorer then creates a new state.
Gradually, Western culture has turned towards a type of restoration that favours the search for the original state of the work. By its positioning, Kintsugi definitively places itself in oriental philosophies such as Zen through the concept of the wabi sabi. Could you come back to this concept and how the Kintsugi can be read through it (wabi sabi: a form of beauty that overcomes the dichotomy between the beautiful and the ugly. The two take their importance in relation to each other and not against each other.)
Viollet-le-Duc is our pet beast, with its fantasized vision of medieval buildings, such as the city of Carcassonne. It is not historical, but comes straight from the 19th century with pre-Raphaelism” (an imaginary vision of the Middle Ages that we have in the 19th century) and Sleeping Beauty. When a restoration is requested by a museum, a colour one tone below or a slightly recessed shard is used: the restoration must be visible, even if it is not at first glance. On the other hand, reversibility is supposed to be perfect even if in reality it is impossible because some products will necessarily penetrate the dough. A museum will never ask for illusionist restoration in France. It is rather the antique dealer’s hobby who wants to sell his piece without saying that it is broken or the collector who would like to have it new. But the first reflex of private individuals is also the desire that the break is no longer visible.
We can also link it to another Japanese concept, that of mono no aware, the idea of the impermanence of things. How does this apply to your work or your perception?
I think it’s because of my own perception. For example, I like to make joints that have volume. I am often asked that. If we look at the restorations that are in Guimet, it’s flat. I think it’s beautiful with volume and it remains attached to the personality of the restorer and it’s a bit my trademark, because to have volume and a brilliant gold I had to develop personal techniques for months to get this result that pleases me. It’s happened to me twice when I’ve been asked to do very flat things for jades. For the ring because it was going to be worn, and there had to be no seal, and for a jade bowl that was an antique. For purists one should almost not see the kintsugi right away, it is not a restoration. He’s not here to decorate.
My artistic approach goes against this idea and before restoring a piece I always ask the person what they want. Everyone loves this scarring aspect. I think it depends on the lacquerer, the sponsor, and the nature of the object. When I do big parts again, I try to make sure it’s flat or it wouldn’t be okay. On the breakage side, I think it’s beautiful when there’s volume. I will remain a Westerner who imitates Japan, so I might as well remain a Westerner. When the kintsugi is very flat, I find that sometimes one wonders if it is not a drawing made with gold by the ceramist at the beginning. By breaking certain rules, I lead people to restore their objects, and therefore to rethink their relationship with objects they thought were no longer usable. Many people tell me: if I had known you before… Restoration will almost always be worth more than the object for ceramics. That’s the problem with illusionist restorations. Since ceramics is no longer worth anything, restoration is always worth more than the object. Obviously there are no customers. As the kintsugi brings value, we can do it. We are also often on unique pieces and so it is this one and not another.
Some authors have been able to say that the Kintsugi belongs to a certain form of beauty of imperfection that would be included in the wabi sabi; for others, the fact of being part of this thought allows us to consider that the kintsugi belongs to another form of perfection, in the sense of a complete object. What do you think of that?
I think the object is complete and perfect like that because we must not forget that ceramics is a utilitarian object. Which explains why it is a minor art. For me it is finished with the restoration because it finds its full function because it can be used again. There is also the admiration side of the damaged object, but for me I will be more on the side of completeness by the kintsugi.
Kintsugi and design
The kintsugi, by making the object unique, breaks with our current tendency to standardize. Indeed, with the latter, objects lose their unique character by gaining a better quality. In fact, it seems more difficult to focus on it. Do you think that this allows us to reconnect with the object?
With industrialization we are faced with a problem. Everyone wants to be fashionable while being unique. The industrial personalization of objects is becoming more and more important and sought-after. Furniture purchased in large chains is often repainted and transformed by its owners, because we want to express who we are while buying well-known products from the mass industry. The search for differentiation accompanies this movement but it also opposes it. As for the link created by the kintsugi, it is really present: I think that the owners therefore love these objects even more and that they take more care of them, even if they are standard industrial objects before their restoration.
By renewing the bond that unites us to the object, the kintsugi appeals to our senses: it could also be considered as emotionnaly durable design. In your practice, by involving the user in the repair process you allow him to attach himself to the object. Do you consider the relationship between the person and the object to be repaired?
In theory, people who require my services have different choices as to how their object will be restored. In particular, I give them the opportunity to focus on the nature of the material used for the repair. Often customers want to touch the parts before buying them: weight, shape, texture, feel are just as important as appearance. The chawan bowl, for example, is quite the type of carnal object that fits in the hand and for which weight or roughness will have a real importance.
You also work with the time element as well as with emotions. Repair places the object in time by giving it its own history and allowing it to be reused. Use then reinforces its value, unlike consumerism, which on the contrary values its new character.
Indeed, I work on the emotions of buyers, on those who want a restoration, as well as on my own. There is a difference in the perception of kintsugi restoration by future owners of the object. When working in illusionist restoration, clients do not have the same feeling when they recover it: for them, change is invisible. The breakage disappeared and the object lost the abnormality that bothered them. On the contrary, the kintsugi provides real recognition: people find their object in its functionality and appearance, but they also discover a new piece transformed by the kintsugi. This strong reaction makes me want to surpass myself, even if strangely enough they rarely reuse the object for fear of damaging it again. The value provided by the kintsugi is both economic and sentimental. Finding what you thought you lost offers a second chance.
Does the nature of your work change when it is an old object?
My first old pieces came from the Louvre’s collection. I remember being very worried about how I would be able to restore them. Today, I work in the same way on all objects, taking into account the specificities of age, but giving them all the same attention. Indeed, when performing a restoration, one must detach oneself from the monetary or historical value of the object in order to make the best possible work. As the work is substantially similar, the cost of this restoration will depend on the degree of breakage and the number of hours spent rather than the nature of the object itself.
Do old objects present an additional difficulty compared to new ones? What about pieces belonging to museums?
Ancient objects are more complex. Often, it is necessary to first stabilize the part, clean seepage and stains and then remove traces of previous repairs. These restorations are a pleasure and allow me to practice chemistry as I have learned it. In this way, I combine European and Japanese techniques one after the other. However, I have few opportunities to work on old parts. I have not yet approached the antique dealers in Paris who are the only ones likely to entrust me with such work.
My diplomas have allowed me to obtain an accreditation to work with museums, but they will never ask me to do a kintsugi repair on their collections. This technique is not reversible, but the museums ask that any repair be reversible for other future restorations, but also for the purposes of research on the pieces. They could eventually ask me to restore a pre-existing kintsugi. I will soon carry out such a restoration on a 17th century piece from a private collection whose joint gold has been damaged over time.
It seems that in the days when kintsugi was in fashion, it was not uncommon for objects to be broken on purpose in order to be repaired and thus enhance their value. Do you think according to this logic that it could be applied to other everyday objects than those made of ceramics? Could the ageing of the object be a design idea?
The working media, both supports and elements of the repair, are very numerous. We could consider working with resin or on carrara marble. A gallery had contacted me to prepare an exhibition for which artists had to create marble works that would then be broken and repaired according to the practice of kintsugi, before being exhibited. On another occasion, some faience makers also asked me to add kintsugi joints on unbroken objects. It was then a question of following a drawing drawn in pencil on the parts with a gold or silver bead.
Indeed, the kintsugi has a gold rendering that cannot be reproduced by gold paint or baked gold. The mixed lacquer and gold are very thick, they create together a tension that results in a smooth appearance that other methods cannot imitate. Coloured joints can also be made by introducing micas or phosphorescent pigments. A large part of my creative work consists in thinking of new applications to old technology. To take the example of carrara marbles, it is impossible to use lacquer as a glue. The two materials are not suitable for this. The lacquer is too fragile a glue. But the effect can be reproduced to give the impression of a kintsugi.
You use Kintsugi in your practice in two ways: as an element of restoration, but also of creation, could you explain to us how you consider these two practices in relation to each other and how you use Kintsugi in a creative process?
I start by recovering broken parts. Some customers give me some thinking they’ll never get them restored or I break them myself; I go to flea markets. My sources are quite numerous. These pieces allow me to think about new lacquer techniques, new colours or assemblies.
What is the time spent on each object?
I keep the documents on average three weeks to one month. I start by taking pictures of them and establishing a report on their condition. Then, gluing an object to a bowl takes about an hour. Capping also represents one hour. The lacquer and gold layers require three hours. Nothing is done below five hours of work for the simplest repairs, i.e. objects from which all the shards have been recovered and which do not have holes or difficulties in accessing their break points. It must be understood that the lacquer settles in thin layers and that it is necessary to wait until the previous layer has dried properly before applying a new one. It is a work of patience.
What would have happened if one of these shards had been missing?
I could have recreated a shard but it is complicated to get a perfectly similar part. The materials shrink during firing and the curvature of the object does not always correspond exactly. To obtain a perfectly attached attachment, it would be necessary to consider large gold bulges, therefore a less balanced effect. The yobi-tsugi technique, the use of another shard, is more easily achieved in Japan. The bowls are standardised and for the most part of the same size. It is then sufficient to recover the right size to insert them correctly according to the appropriate curvature.
kintsugi as a metaphor
The kintsugi elevates repair to the rank of a new creation. It has thus been possible to consider that the art of kintsugi has developed as a cultural response to living in fear of seismic tremors with the need to fight against this risk through objects with strong emotional power and binding people together? Do you think that objects can have this gathering dimension?
These objects take a special place in the home. The owners offer it after restoration, show it to their friends. They include a very important symbolic part. The link is recreated with the object and extended to other people who were not using it before. Even if we put our Western vision into it, this practice allows us to project our approach to the world on objects.
Following the same logic, the Kintsugi expresses the idea that disaster is always possible, but bears witness to a calamity that can be overcome. This gold repair even suggests beyond that that the calamity has been overcome and that the separate parts have come closer together. While Kintsugi has already been used as a metaphor to describe war traumas and refugee experiences, I find it particularly poetic and full of hope to describe the world around us.
To answer, it is necessary to think about the completeness of the object: is it recreated or is it a forced assembly of shards? What we see when we look at the object belongs to everyone. Some will say that it is a forced reconstruction and that the crisis has not been overcome; others will consider that the shards have been repositioned to their rightful place and that the crisis has been overcome, or even that it has allowed us to rethink our place in society.
It seems to me that this approach is very Western. However, it is also the way I perceive the kintsugi. Reading the few academic essays on the subject, one realizes that this is not exactly how the kintsugi is thought of in Japan. But that’s what makes the kintsugi interesting. From the same art we draw a different vision. We see an object damaged by life and made stronger by its breaks as the Japanese contemplate the damaged object with regret for what it was and a certain melancholy.
What is the question that was not asked?
I am often asked if the quality of the restoration depends on the restorer or the materials used. A good restoration depends on the care you take. Of course, gold that is not finely ground will be difficult to use, but for other materials, time, patience and knowledge can compensate for a lack of quality. Knowledge of chemistry is therefore essential. It’s not a random art. There is nothing empirical about restoration.