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Q: cinnabar ( Answered,   0 Comments )
Subject: cinnabar
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: stocky-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 31 Oct 2003 12:52 PST
Expires: 30 Nov 2003 12:52 PST
Question ID: 271505
date,method, of carving cinnabar in china

Request for Question Clarification by tutuzdad-ga on 31 Oct 2003 13:45 PST
Can you be more specific about what question you'd like to have
answered? The use of cinnabar spans centuries. What exactly would you
like to know about it? (keeping in mind that the more specific you are
about the art and the era the more likley you will be to get a quality
answer to your question).


Clarification of Question by stocky-ga on 31 Oct 2003 16:34 PST
wish approximate time of the start of carving cinnabar in
they carve it and rough value of a chinese red laquered vase with
lidded top,heavily hand carved in restorations.i
last saw a piece of cinnabar in japan in 1947 and have always wanted a
piece of it.  tks.
Subject: Re: cinnabar
Answered By: digsalot-ga on 31 Oct 2003 16:36 PST
Hello there

Cinnabar lacquer art carving dates back about 2300 years in China. 
The exact date for the first piece produced is of course unknown. The
lacquer itself comes from a native Chinese tree sap from what is
simply called the lacquer tree, a type of sumac.  It is produced with
a trunk tapping process much like that of the rubber tree.  Mineral
pigments such as cinnabar or iron oxide are added to the lacquer for
the dark red color. Over a hundred coats of the lacquer may be needed
to get the necessary thickness for carving. These layers are applied
over a solid base of copper or perhaps wood.  Because each coat must
dry before the next is applied, the process takes many months to
complete a single piece.   It is recorded that "a fine large piece
might take years to prepare and then years to carve ... and ten years
was not considered excessive."

However, there is also a natural cinnabar known as "massive cinnabar"
which has been carved.  This is a highly toxic and dangerous mineral
to work with.  I would strongly caution anyone who might want to
collect it or work with it to think twice.  The use of this material
could lead to physical and/or mental illness or even death.

The toxicity of mercury and cinnabar seems to have been known before
2000 BCE.  Only slaves and prisoners were used in its mining and the
average lifespan of miners was only three years from the time they
began this kind of work.  Today, cinnabar used in jewelry is listed as
a source of mercury exposure.

In China, it has a historic use as a gemrock.  Even today massive
cinnabar is an accepted carving material among the Chinese.  Some
cinnabar bearing rocks such as cinnabar quarts are made into earrings
and ring stones.

Now you asked about a "date" for the use of cinnabar and did not
specify whether you were speaking of the massive cinnabar or the
lacquer.  So I will give you a little of both.  The early date for the
use of the lacquer version was mentioned above and the date and
history for the use of massive cinnabar must be mostly in the form of
hypothesis based on archaeological and cultural evidence.

Because of its red color, cinnabar was one of the first pigments used
by humanity for such things as ceremonial face and body paint and for
self adornment.

As time passed, it would become apparent that those who made and wore
such things developed physical or mental problems.  However, in spite
of this, the red color made it desirable and the use of cinnabar was

In China, probably through trial and accident, this continued use led
to the discovery that cinnabar pigmented lacquer could be applied in
multiple coats to produce masses large enough for carving.  This
essentially supplanted the use of massive cinnabar for making beads
and jewelery and later was applied to other decorative pieces.

Now you realize that the history above is conjecture with
archaeological support.  I've been known to do such things since it is
part of the way I make a living.  However, here is some of the support
to back it.  Cinnabar pigmented lacquer dates back at least to the Han
Dynasty, about 300 BCE.  The use of other pigmented lacquer dates back
even farther than that.  Black lacquer was used as early as Neolithic
times in China and the adoption of a red pigment would seem to be a
natural development and cinnabar was the most obvious red pigment to
experiment with.

So, any "firm" date for the use of cinnabar cannot be given.  It is
lost in the mists of time.

Carving techniques vary with the artist and what is wanted of the
finished piece.  One common method was to carve the piece in  wood
then cover with the lacquer.  When the final lacquer payers are dried,
then details are sculpted with hand tools.  A lathe may be used along
with hand tools similar to those for wood carving.

Lacquer "carving" techniques include embossing, cutting, and actual
carving.  The final results from all three techniques fall under the
common heading of "carved Lacquer."  This can include relief carving,
negative engraving, and free-style carving.

Some common methods include drawing a design in liquid lacquer on a
many layered lacquered surface.  A fine charcoal powder (or paste made
with lacquer and fine clay) is built up on the lacquer.  The charcoal
surface is then sculpted and polished and a final coat of lacquer is
applied to the polished part.  After it dries and hardens, the surface
is polished.  The effect would be of a solid piece of carved cinnabar

Another has the design carved in the wooden base.  The surface is
coated with raw lacquer then very carefully covered with the coats of
cinnabar lacquer.  After the lacquer hardens, the surface is finally
buffed.  This makes a prominent 'relief' design for "carved" lacquer.

Well, so far I have given you a rather nebulous answer both for the
date and for methods.  The problem is that the exact date is
unobtainable and the carving methods are as numerous as the artists
doing the carving.  The techniques for the carving have also changed
many times over the centuries from a rather smooth and polished look
in many early pieces to a more "brush stroke" look in pieces carved
with ultrasharp tools.

As for the carving of massive cinnabar, the techniques would be the
same as for carving any other "quartz" type gemstone.  You will find a
gallery of massive cinnabar as part of the resources listed below.  A
truly beautiful though dangerous stone.

Search - google
Terms - lacquer, lacquer history, cinnabar, massive cinnabar, carving
cinnabar, and some of my own guesswork as an archaeologist.

Websites used to compose the above include:

"Mining for Mercury" - - Website of
Kremer Pigmente

"Cinnabar - Geology Today, Vol 18, Issue 5, pp. 195-199 (Abstract)";jsessionid=b0WzLSHTCAld
- - A subscription is needed.  Has been a good investment for me over
time.  You can also download an abstract of the article for free.

"1 History, Comparative Advancing Art History of Pigments and Mediums,
European and Asian Cultures..." - actually this
website is a commercial for a course.

"Cinnabar Gallery" - - From

The book - Lee -  "Oriental Lacquer Art" - 1972 - Weatherhill, NY - A
private printing and I proudly own an edition.

If I may clarify anything, please ask.


Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 31 Oct 2003 16:41 PST
Your clarification came in after I started answering the question.  Do
you have an image of the piece you are asking about?

It would have to be a very rough estimate to say the least.  We have
no idea of the size of the piece.  The value, if it is authentic
cinnabar lacquer, would be rather high.  There are only a couple of
manufacturers of cinnabar lacquer remaining in China and the red
pigments used are often not cinnabar but substitutes.

Request for Answer Clarification by stocky-ga on 01 Nov 2003 07:28 PST
your answer was regards to additional imput,the vase is
11"x5"  .it has a monochrome lacquer (red) has hand carved
depiction of chinese landscape.3 scenes with monks with craggy rocks
and mts. in the background.several trees with lush foliage
depicted.double border of peonies both at top and bottomlid has peonie of lid has beutifully carved lotus deeply etched in.the
intrior of the lid is red-laquered. please give me a rough idea what
this might be worth. thanks again for your thorough research. phil

Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 01 Nov 2003 12:59 PST
I want to make a couple of phone calls.  One to Carnegie Museum and
one to the Cleveland Art Museum.  I have done work for both of those
institutions and have some contacts which could point me the right

I have found similar looking pieces online with prices ranging between
1 and 2 hundred dollars. (or less)  Some of the "cinnabar" lacquer
produced since the 19th century has been "carved" into lower grade
un-pigmented lacquers and then covered with red enamel.  A lot of this
has been sold to the tourist trade and is among China's regular "art"
exports.  It is legally sold as lacquerware because it is lacquerware,
it is just not cinnabar though some dealers label it as such.  It is
still exquisite work.

Some of the more elaborate pieces are actually carved in cork, which
is easy to work with, then lacquered over for a hard solid finish.  It
is difficult to test this outside a laboratory for the simple reason,
that while such a piece may have some "give" if you press on it, the
pressing itself may crack the lacquer surface and ruin the look. 
Medical science has come to the aid of many collectors and museums
when an expensive purchase of cinnabar is contemplated.  They have the
piece x-rayed.  Once again, many of these are magnificent works and
are worth collecting.

In the meantime, here are a couple of websites offering cinnabar for
sale.  You may get some idea of price range.

The first has two cinnabar vases in their original shipping box at
$120 for the pair. You will also find a red enamel covered piece which
will give you some idea of what it looks like.

Here are several carved cinnabar items, including vases, complete with
price.  The photos are click-to-enlarge and you might find something
similar to what you have. - - - If not, the photos are still a
pleasure to look at.

I will let you know the results of the calls.  If what you have, or
want to buy, is a true antique, or even old enough to be an
"antiquity" then it will be beyond the scope of this format to give a
price.  You will need to have a professional look at it.  I would
recommend using a museum or an independent appraiser who is not in the
business of earning an income from the sale of cinnabar. As a retired
archaeologist, the last place I would take an artifact to determine
its financial value to a collector is a commercial antiquities dealer.
 Their own wallet comes first.

If you have a good art or anthropology/archaeology museum in your
area, that would be your best bet.  They usually charge for the
service but you can trust the results.


Clarification of Answer by digsalot-ga on 04 Nov 2003 10:22 PST
Well, I talked to both museums and received pretty much the same
answer from each.

The collector's market for cinnabar is not all that large even though
the material is spectacular.  There are too many people who feel the
danger of cinnabar lacquer is not that much less than from massive
cinnabar.  They are wrong (to a degree) but still believe it anyway. 
The reason I say "to a degree" is that while it is safe to display
cinnabar, it is not something you want to have around children. 
Because of the color, it is very attractive to them and of course
looks like something they might want to 'taste.'

The amount of cinnabar displayed within a given area is also something
to consider.  Many museums with large collections of lacquer may have
non-cinnabar lacquerware displayed in the open with rope or some other
barrier to prevent people from touching it.  If they have large
collections of cinnabar, it is  often kept under glass.  The amount of
pigment varies greatly from piece to piece and a massive display of
the art may outgas enough mercury to be of mild concern.  More so
because of the public perception of cinnabar than of any 'real'

Because the market is the way it is, even good quality antique pieces
can be had for a couple of hundred dollars or less, often much less. 
It really is a 'buyers' rather than a 'sellers' market.

If the piece you are considering has a price more than the above
range, you should consider have a professional examine it.

When I described the piece you are interested in, I was told the
interior color has about a 50-50 chance of being enamel or lacquer. 
That is the best they could do without actually looking at it.  Either
one is an acceptable practice and should not effect the value to any
great degree.  Enamel is also a fine Chinese art and some combinations
of enamel and lacquer carry even higher prices than either alone.

Happy collecting 
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