Kintsugi: The Japanese art of fixing broken things
Nothing is ever truly broken - that's the philosophy behind the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, which repairs smashed pottery by using beautiful seams of gold.
When a bowl, teapot or precious vase falls and breaks into a thousand pieces, we throw them away angrily and regretfully. Yet there is an alternative, a Japanese practice that highlights and enhances the breaks thus adding value to the broken object. It’s called kintsugi (金継ぎ), or kintsukuroi (金繕い), literally golden (“kin”) and repair (“tsugi”).
This unique method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. In fact, Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalising it with a new look and giving it a second life.
This traditional Japanese art uses a precious metal – liquid gold, liquid silver or lacquer dusted with powdered gold – to bring together the pieces of a broken pottery item and at the same time enhance the breaks. The technique consists in joining fragments and giving them a new, more refined aspect. Every repaired piece is unique, because of the randomness with which ceramics shatters and the irregular patterns formed that are enhanced with the use of metals.
There are 3 predominant styles of Kintsugi: crack, piece method, and joint-call. While, in each case, gold, silver, or platinum-dusted epoxy is used to fix the broken pottery, the techniques and finished results vary.
The glue traditionally used to bring the pieces together is the urushi lacquer, which is being sourced for thousands of years from the Rhus verniciflua plant. The Chinese have been using it for thousands of years while in Japan, in the Shimahama Tomb in Fukui Prefecture, archaeologists found objects including combs and lacquered trays that were used in the Jomon period about 5,000 years ago. Initially, this sticky sap was used for its adhesive qualities to create war and hunting weapons.
The kintsugi technique may have been invented around the fifteenth century, when Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate after breaking his favourite cup of tea sent it to China to get it repaired. Unfortunately, at that time the objects were repaired with unsightly and impractical metal ligatures. It seemed that the cup was unrepairable but its owner decided to try to have some Japanese craftsmen repair it. They were surprised at the shogun’s steadfastness, so they decided to transform the cup into a jewel by filling its cracks with lacquered resin and powdered gold. The legend seems plausible because the invention of kintsugi is set in a very fruitful era for art in Japan. Under Yoshimasa’s rule the city saw the development of the Higashiyama bunka cultural movement that was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and started the tea ceremony (also called Sado or the Way of Tea) and ikebana (also Kado, way of flowers) traditions, the Noh theatre, the Chinese style of painting with ink.
Even today, it may take up to a month to repair the largest and most refined pieces of ceramics with the kintsugi technique, given the different steps and the drying time required.
The kintsugi technique suggests many things. We shouldn’t throw away broken objects. When an object breaks, it doesn’t mean that it is no more useful. Its breakages can become valuable. We should try to repair things because sometimes in doing so we obtain more valuable objects. This is the essence of resilience. Each of us should look for a way to cope with traumatic events in a positive way, learn from negative experiences, take the best from them and convince ourselves that exactly these experiences make each person unique, precious.
You probably don’t expect other people to be perfect. You may in fact appreciate when people expose their vulnerabilities, show old wounds or admit errors. It’s evidence that we’re all fallible, that we heal and grow, that we survive blows to the ego or to our reputations or health and can live to tell the tale. Exposing vulnerabilities by admitting errors creates intimacy and trust in relationships, and fosters forgiveness.
Finally the experiences you have, and the person you already are, suffice. You may, of course, occasionally chip and break and need repairs. And that’s fine. But reality is the best and most abundant material on the planet, available to anyone, for free, and we can all use what we already have—including our flaws—to be beautiful. After all, our cracks are what give us character.