A rare Japanese export lacquer jewellery casket with inlays of precious materials, possibly by the Kichibei Studio
The lacquer has been applied over a wooden core of sugi wood (Cryptomeria japonica) and is finished in both black lacquer surfaces and areas sprinkled with gold flakes known as nashiji. Each individual facet of both the casket and the lid is further embellished with drawings in low relief hira-maki-e, surrounded by silver cartouches and a frame of geometric banding in gold and red lacquer.
Wood (sugi), Asian Vernicifluüm lacquer, gold- and silver-powder, inlays in gold, silver, tin, coral and jade, solid silver and brass fittings.
H. 20.3 x W. 25.4 x 19 cm / (8 x 10 x 7 1/2 inch)
This richly decorated jewellery casket with a concave lid belongs to a period in Japanese export lacquer coined the transitional phase. After the Dutch East Indian Company took over the Portuguese monopoly on lacquerware, Japanese lacquer craftsmen slowly shifted their style from the well- documented Namban style towards the so-called Koumou-style in order to satisfy the demand of their new ‘redhaired’ clientele.
This meant abandoning the use of geometric borders with generous use of mother of pearl inlay in favour of a more sober, picturesque style of paintings on a solemn black background. As seen in this remarkable casket, the decorations still show remnants of the decorative borders and cartouches favoured by the Portuguese, whilst simultaneously showing a strong development towards the new fashion that came to dominate Japanese export lacquer after the 1650s.
What makes this artwork so remarkable, is not only it being the earliest known jewellery casket of this type and the pristine condition in which it has been preserved, but also the subtle use of inlays using some of the rarest materials available at the time. The latter could even indicate a connection to the only known signed 17th-century lacquer item, owned by the Groninger Museum.
Several jewellery caskets of similar proportions are known to have survived. Demonstrably derived from popular European examples such as Italian Pietra Dure cassones and Augsburger chests and cabinets, this well-established shape probably reached Japan through direct patronage of the Dutch. Similarly sized caskets were popular in the Netherlands during the first half of the 17th century, often coming in the form of silver knottekistjes from Friesland and leather plantijnkistjes from Flanders.
The hidden panel on the right-hand side of the casket slides upwards in order to reveal a secret drawer destined for (love)letters. Coincidentally, Amsterdam’s earliest known lacquer artist Willem Kick, to which this item shows remarkable kinship in terms of size and proportion, can find a virtually identical construction in the lacquer caskets. So much so, that one could almost imagine that one of Kick’s works travelled as far as to Japan in order to serve as a model for this particular type of casket. As such, there can be little doubt that this casket served as a bridal chest in accordance with its European example.
The jewellery casket can be placed within a small group of similarly proportioned items with concave lids, all of which seem to have already evolved from the transitional phase into the mature picturesque style. We find famous examples featuring ivory pilasters in the collections of the V&A (inv. 628-1868), Peabody Essex Museum (inv. Xxx) and Tokyo National Museum, as well as several other examples known from private collections in Germany and the UK in particular. Considering the fact that this jewellery casket demonstrates a much stronger adherence to the transitional style, one could argue that it stands out by being the oldest known example within the group, perhaps even predating the middle of the century when the Dutch lacquer trade only began to take shape.
When we study the rather uncommon decorative borders along the rims of the casket, we find that the ornaments in gold and red lacquer are somewhat similar to the ones found in a large coffer owned by the Groninger Museum that is signed by Saji Kichibei (inv. 1988-24). Although definitely simpler in terms of execution than the Groninger coffer, the decorations in maki-e and the extremely rare use of precious inlays might even indicate an origin from the same studio. Take a look for example, at the small silver inlays on the prune trees and the polished silver chrysanthemum flowers (migaki-kiku) on the lids of both the jewellery casket and the Kichibei coffer. Also similar is the subtle use of red lacquer for drawing flowers; a feature which is almost entirely abandoned during when the picturesque style reaches full maturity. Our casket even seems eager to trump the coffer by having a single inlay in what appears to be solid gold.
Whether or not the link to Kichibei can be proven, the jewellery casket’s unusual decorations in precious inlays tell us story; the story of a wedding. Underneath the solid silver lock entrance with chrysanthemum-shaped nail heads, our eye is drawn to a scene with a male and female mandarin duck who appears in the midst of a mating ritual. They are our first indication that the casket was -according to European tradition- intended as a bridal gift. When opening the lid of the casket and revealing the inside, we find a mirror flanked on either side by stalks of bamboo. These are yet another purely Asian symbol for marriage, in which the resilient, unyielding bamboo represents an unbreakable bond in the hardest of storms. A final symbol for marriage can be found on the front of the hidden drawer behind the sliding panel, in which a pair of fluttering butterflies complete the total of three wishes for a happy marriage.
However, there are more stories to discover in the maki-e. A story that seems so strongly rooted in Japanese culture, that is was most likely overlooked by the Dutch client who commissioned the item. As we look to the left-hand side of the box, we notice a basket filled with what looks like freshly harvested watermelons. A bright green melon carved out of jade catches our eye as it proudly stands out from the golden maki-e background. The melons provide us with a valuable clue, as the fruit is used as a symbol to announce the coming of autumn according to the traditional Chinese solar calendar. Upon closer inspection, we find more symbols referring to the season of Risshu (August 7-22). On the right-hand side we discover a vase filled with a bright pink confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis), both a symbol of the Risshu period and marriage prosperity in Japanese Hanakotoba (the language of flowers). The evidence becomes even stronger when knowing that the Risshu period is ushered in by the suzukaseitaru, or incoming cool wind indicating the final weeks of summer. Upon closer inspection, the black lacquered areas surrounding the drawings reveal puffs of cloud-shaped sprinklings in cool silver powder, along with the appearance of the first-morning dew in the form of geometrical silver inlays known as ginkirigane. Unlike the silver mokume-motif in the Groninger coffer, the seemingly random sprinklings in silver powder actually seem deliberate additions to emphasize to coming of autumn.
Is the combination of all these symbols referring to a wedding in August? If so, the Japanese artist who created this item really went to great lengths in order to add a very personal touch to the casket. And one can hardly image the Dutch client having understood such a complex iconography. Regardless though, the highly personal and intimate iconography makes it highly unlikely that this item was part of an official commission by the Company. It seems much more likely that a high-ranking official had ordered this item for either his own upcoming wedding or that of a close friend. The maker must have been informed about the planned wedding date and adopted his decorations accordingly. This might also offer some explanation as to why this item predates other jewellery caskets of the same type. The fact that it seems to have been part of private trade makes it more likely that the item could have been produced in the period following the Taiwan incident when all official trade in lacquer had been put under embargo. In fact, the Company’s facturen from 1636 mention the presence of ‘Juweelcantoorkens’, which would fit with the period in which our casket could have been produced.
As a final note, it should be mentioned that the casket is in pristine condition. Having only received minimal restoration treatment, one can safely assume that has never been touched by Western restorers who are unfamiliar with Asian lacquer. That in itself is already a remarkable observation, especially considering the artwork’s age.