The Art of Kintsugi Pottery in Japan

by Michelle Lin

White Japanese Kintsugi teapot, the beauty of imperfections.

If you’ve ever seen a broken pot, ceramic bowl, plate, or mug laced with organic veins of gold-like rivers, you may be familiar with the art of Japanese gold repair or kintsugi pottery. In this ancient tradition, art meets sustainability. Broken pottery, rather than being tossed aside to eventually reach a landfill, is pieced back together to create objects even more beautiful than the originals.

The one-of-a-kind results of traditional kintsugi pottery (also known as kintsukuroi) are often seen as metaphors for the struggles of life. By embracing our flaws and  imperfections and highlighting our unique journeys, we can reveal our singular beauty. 

Curious about the historical significance of Japanese gold restoration and how can you use it to repair your own ceramics? Let’s pick up the pieces and mend together an informative guide.

What is Kintsugi?

Before diving in too deep, let’s look at some translations:

  • Kintsugi means “gold seams”
  • Kintsukuroi means “golden repair”

This encompasses the ethos of traditional kintsugi pottery. At its heart, the kintsugi technique combines practicality and beauty, a truly Japanese ideal. Kintsukuroi artists repair broken pottery with lacquer. Then they cover the repairs, or the seams, with gold to keep the ceramic piece food safe and durable. 

This practical means of repair is a prominent example of wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept that imperfections create beauty. By emphasizing the broken and missing pieces of the pottery, Japanese gold repair creates pieces that have more value—and more beauty—than the original.

Fixing ceramics with a kintsugi method.

The History of Kintsugi

Kintsugi pottery is an ancient tradition; rather than a canonical origin story, there are legends and assumptions. 

As the story goes, a powerful 15th-century shogun broke a Chinese tea bowl and sent it to China for repairs. He was disappointed by the Chinese method of pottery repair, which used staples to hold the bowl together—this inspired artisans to develop a more beautiful way to repair ceramics.

Kintsugi bowl. Gold cracks restoration on old Japanese pottery restored with the antique restoration technique.The unique beauty of imperfections.

That said, the tradition of kintsugi most likely began in the 16th or 17th century, with the rising popularity of tea bowls and tea ceremonies. The delicate ceramic tea cups and tea sets were easily broken, and a means of repair became necessary. 

Lacquer artisans, who used a tree sap lacquer known as urushi to create bowls, boxes, and other decorative objects, applied their talents to the broken pottery. Then they brushed the seams with gold powder, which was commonly used to ornament their lacquer creations. 

Making Your Own Kintsugi Pottery Repairs

If you have a broken piece of pottery, you’re well on your way to making your own beautiful wabi-sabi ceramics. This method is a DIY variation of the traditional one used by lacquer artisans for centuries. Set aside half an hour and gather together these supplies to get started:

  • Clear ceramic adhesive, be sure it’s food safe if you’re repairing something you wish to eat or drink from; an epoxy resin is toxic but fine to use for purely decorative repairs
  • Gold mica powder that can be combined with the adhesive (again, use a food safe version for repairs to dishes you plan to use)

Doing new kintsugi with epoxy glue and gold dust on a broken small porcelain bowl.

  • A pallet for mixing your adhesive and gold
  • A thin paintbrush that you don’t mind throwing away when you’re done with this project
  • Masking tape to keep the pieces in place while you’re working

Protect your work surface with a tarp or paper, and arrange your broken ceramic so that you’re ready to piece it together. Then mix your adhesive and mica powder. Use a two-to-one ratio of adhesive to mica. In other words, use twice as much adhesive as gold mica powder.

Next, glue your ceramics together, starting with the smaller pieces. Use your paintbrush to cover the broken edges of your ceramics, then push the edges together. If the adhesive mixture bubbles or seeps, don’t worry. That unpredictable movement is part of what makes kintsugi pottery so unique. Let each seam dry for a few minutes before you move to the next one.

Let the adhesive set according to the package directions. If more time is needed, use strips of masking tape to hold the pieces in place while it dries. Once it’s ready, step back to admire your work. Not only have you created an object of beauty, but you have also contributed to a more sustainable future by participating in an ancient tradition.

Kintsugi in the 21st Century

Ceramics of all kinds have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, including kintsugi pottery. Museums collect pottery using Japanese gold restoration; kintsukuroi artisans are in high demand; even contemporary Japanese artisans have been inspired to create sculptures based on the traditional technique.   

Just like the beautiful Japanese pottery it maintains, Japanese gold repair is a resilient tradition.

Japanese sake cups set, Kintsugi gold cracks, antique Japanese restoration technique.

Put Your Kintsugi Pottery to Use With a Bokksu Subscription

When you’re wondering how to use the dish you repaired with the kintsugi technique, you can turn to your Bokksu Japanese subscription box. When you subscribe to our monthly tiers, you can expect artisan treats made by snack makers who have been in business for centuries.

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Sources: 

BETTER by Today. How the Japanese art of Kintsugi can help you deal with stressful situations. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/how-japanese-art-technique-kintsugi-can-help-you-be-more-ncna866471 

Artsy. The Centuries-Old Japanese Tradition of Mending Broken Ceramics with Gold. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-centuries-old-japanese-tradition-mending-broken-ceramics-gold 

Leonard Koren. Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Wabi_sabi_for_Artists_Designers_Poets_Ph/jQelDAgr63oC?hl=en&gbpv=0 

Smithsonian. The Beauty of Broken Objects. https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/snapshot/beauty-broken-objects 

Invaluable. Kintsugi Pottery: The Art of Repairing With Gold. https://www.invaluable.com/blog/kintsugi/


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