Lacquer is widely used to preserve wood and to enhance its appeal, and many different types of lacquer boxes are produced throughout the world. These boxes range in size from tiny ornamental boxes, suitable for holding a few personal treasures, all the way to large storage boxes the size of steamer trunks. Some types of lacquer box are plain and utilitarian, but many are ornamented. Russian, European, and oriental ornamental boxes are all common and prized by collectors for their beauty and elegance.
Boxes were originally treated with lacquer for purely utilitarian reasons. Lacquer, a form of varnish that is typically colored, seals and protects wood against damage. Wood treated in such a fashion is especially resistant to water damage. Many modern boxes are still made of wood, but papier-mâché is also popular for smaller decorative boxes.
The simplest lacquer boxes reflect the utilitarian origins of the style. Plain wooden boxes treated with lacquer are produced throughout the world. These objects can be lovely, as certain types of dark lacquer, such as the common black lacquer, provide an attractive and distinctive finish. Other varieties of lacquer treatment serve to emphasize the underlying characteristics of the wood.
Small jewelry boxes are often made out of lacquered wood with felt or padding to protect their contents. Larger boxes in this style still serve as elegant travel accessories or as cases to hold and display crystal or other precious objects. Still larger examples are common as decorative elements in room design.
Decorative lacquer boxes are generally smaller than plain boxes but much more intricate. These boxes generally feature a basic lacquer finish over much of their surface and an ornamental pattern or picture on the top. Some include additional images or decorative flourishes on other parts of the box. They are usually sealed with an additional layer of lacquer to protect the artwork. Each region produces decorative boxes inspired by their own particular artistic traditions.
Russian lacquer boxes, for example, typically feature decorative elements from local history, myth, and culture. Scenic paintings are common, with churches and cathedrals appearing quite frequently. Fairy tales are also frequently depicted, with preference given to tales that make for good paintings, such as the story of the firebird. These boxes are widely known as palekh boxes after one of the villages where they are created. This style of box painting is actually a fairly recent innovation, dating back only 100 years, but derives from the ancient art of icon painting.
Many regions produce lacquer boxes in local and distinctive styles. Black lacquer boxes are common in China, Japan, and Thailand, and all of these regions produce both simple and decorated boxes. These boxes may feature painted covers that are roughly similar in design, although not in style, to their Russian counterparts.
Other varieties of lacquer box are also common in this region. Some especially intricate Chinese lacquer boxes are first carved and then painted. This process involves two different layers of craftsmanship and is very expensive but produces finished boxes with a rich appearance and a good deal of visual depth. In some cases these boxes are decorated in geometric styles, and in others, a mixture of lacquer and inlay materials is used to create an image.