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Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Bracelet and Necklace

This huge (2 3/4" high) 19th century cinnabar and black lacquer bracelet has an unusual construction. Its three metal panels are curved, hinged and painted with a thick paint colored with cinnabar. The three black lacquer panels are carved with open work and attached to the metal base, so the red you see in the spaces of the lacquer is actually the paint on the base.


These early 20th century carv ed lacquer beads use a similar technique… the black lacquer is carved away to expose the red cinnabar underneath.

1Cinnabar is a word with many meanings: …a deep red mineral found near volcanic rock – mercuric sulfide (HgS) … a brilliant red color … a type of moth … a lacquer.

Found in Hunan Province, the Chinese have been using the mineral cinnabar for over 1000 years as a pigment or coloring agent. At one time, it was used: in stage makeup, to color paint and ultimately in the form we see in jewelry… to create a brilliant red lacquer.

2 Lacquer is  a coating made of cellulose esters, shellac or resins. In the orient, the cinnabar pigment  is most often combined with a resin varnish from trees of the cashew family.

The Chinese began carving cinnabar lacquer in approximately the 8th century. To create a cinnabar ornament, one hundred coats of lacquer might be applied to an object… a box or vase or pendant.

It was a painstaking process…  each layer was left to dry 3 days before the next layer could be applied – then carved. 18th century lacquer also has layers of fabric …between coats of lacquer. 5

But virtually all objects called ‘cinnabar’ and made after 1950 are neither cinnabar or lacquer… it is a resin substitute… concerns about the toxicity of the mercury content ended the use of true cinnabar.

These beads and the moth pendant are examples of the most common red resin ornaments being produced for the last 50 years … they are very pretty, not cinnabar…not lacquer … but red resin… still, they are very pretty!

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One Comment

  1. Max
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Very very nice jewelry. I would love to obtain similar jewelry like this, but I have no clue where to go to get it which makes me sad.

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