Tea bowl repaired with gold and a technique called makienaoshi, which replaces a lost piece with gold decorated with a design or texture that complements the pattern. Photograph Courtesy of Myriam Greff, A telier Kintsugi.

The Art of Golden Joinery

How many of us have stood aghast and helpless with dismay as our favorite teapot, bowl, or dish slips from our hands and shatters on the floor? Our distress is followed by the indecision as to whether to throw all the broken pieces away or to try and glue them back together as best we can in order to pretend the careless accident never happened.

But there is a third option—we can have the smashed porcelain or pottery repaired by the kintsugi technique that reassembles the fragments, replaces chips, and mends cracks with lacquered gold so that the shimmering scars become a unique and valuable part of the repaired object. By this method, the treasured artifact takes on a new life and a new beauty in its imperfections and reminds us that flaws and wounds add individuality and rareness and give the item its own special value and importance. The technique links to the Japanese word mottainai, meaning the sense of deep regret when something good is wasted, and to mushin, a state of mind that is free from anger, fear, ego, and attachments and an understanding of the need to accept change, not just in physical objects but in people, too.

The legend of kintsugi (golden repair) or kintsukuroi (golden joinery) tells of a great emperor who invited many visitors to the investiture of his son, the Crown Prince. The emperor owned a very special tea bowl that had been made for him by a renowned craftsman, and he was looking forward to showing it of to his guests. On the morning before the ceremony, he found the bowl broken into many pieces inside his cabinet, and he was extremely upset that something so exquisite could have been destroyed. Next morning, all the pieces had disappeared, but so, too, had the Crown Prince’s newly made golden crown. No one knew how this could have happened, but a scruffy, rather dirty person (later revealed as the prince in disguise) had been seen running toward the prince’s apartment, which was now locked. The emperor told his ministers to do nothing but to “leave the prince alone. If he is ready to rule, he must be allowed to act. His will and mine are as one.” The next morning, the precious bowl was back inside the cabinet, more beautiful than before, for it now had veins of gold tracing the pattern of the repair work across its surface. And the crown, slimmer and simpler than before, seemed to possess more strength and authority, for some of its shining power had given new allure and charm to the bowl, and both rarities had thus acquired enhanced stature and presence.