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L A C Q U E R

Lacquered bureau, 1938. Doc Dutko

Already well known in China in the Chou period, around 1000 B.C, lacquer was used in Japan in about the 6th century before being used in other areas of the Far East. Real lacquers are made of a resinous rubber latex obtained by incision from the Japanese "lacquer tree" - Rhus vernicifera. Other less well-known species provide lacquer in countries such as China, Indochina and Cambodia. The fresh lacquer is filtered and collected in non-metallic recipients covered in dark waterproof paper. It can be kept for a long period, suffering only a gradual decantation. The upper layers are the best quality. For polymerization to occur, an enzyme and humidity must be present. (It takes between 5 and 8 hours at between 15° and 20°C). Lacquer is applied in several coats (as many as 60). In the middle of the 18th century the transport companies "Compagnies des Indes" which docked on the Indian Coromandel Coast brought back screens and furniture which Parisian cabinetmakers adapted, using the panels as frames in their own furniture. This became extremely fashionable. European chemists tried to make varnishes that could compete with the lacquers. "Aventurine", a lacquer used on copies of Chinese or Japanese furniture was made of a black varnish containing spangles of mica.
Around 1730, the four Martin brothers perfected a varnish that could compete with Chinese and Japanese lacquers. Sheets of paper stuck to furniture were fired to harden them and then painted and varnished with resin before finally being glazed with gum arabic. The Martin brothers worked like this until 1785. The name "Vernis Martin" (Martin's varnish) has often been attributed to lacquers and varnishes that imitate those of the Far East. Such substitutes are also called "vernis parisien" or vernis de Paris".
- Niello is a process that has been used since ancient times to achieve a particular effect on gold decors. The metal is first engraved with the desired pattern and the lines are then filled with a black enamel compound composed of sulphur, copper, lead, silver, borax etc....
- The painting on sheet metal technique was created in Italy and first used on furniture in 1740. It was adopted in both France and England in 1763. This technique was developed to compete with lacquer - considered both fragile and expensive. A sheet of laminated iron covered with a fine layer of tin was coated with two to four layers of varnish. Once dry, the varnish was polished and this smooth surface formed the base upon which the decor was painted.

Napoléon III Vitrine decorated in "Vernis Martin". Doc Sotheby's