When most think of fine lacquerware, we think of the fine work that was perfected in Asia. However, the same technique, of hand-rubbing pigments into an object was developed independently in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
In much of Mesoamerica, the technique was principally used to cover gourds or parts of gourds to create both dishes and decorative items. One popular object was cups used for the drinking of chocolate, then reserved only for the nobility. The base could either be oil from the chia seed or a waxy substance derived from the aje larvae. In either case, the base grease was combined with mineral or plant pigments and carefully rubbed into the material to form a shiny, hard coating. Designed were painted then fixed by rubbing.
When the Spanish arrived, they did not recognize Mesoamercian lacquerware (called alternately maque or laca today) as such, but simply as painted. They could not fathom that the indigenous peoples were capable to developing what they had been importing at high cost from Asia.
For this reason, lacquerware was imported into New Spain, generally brought from the Phillipines to Acapulco via the Manila Galleon. From there, most traveled over land east towards Mexico City. One of the customs stations along this road was in Patzcuaro, Michocan.
The introduction of European designs and tastes, as well as Asian imports had an effect on the development of lacquerware during the colonial period, although a number of indigenous influences still remain. Most lacquerware in Mexico is produced in the states of Guerrero, Michoacan and Chiapas. Lacquered gourds can still be found, but more often the technique now is used on wood objects, especially boxes, bowls, plates and platters.
The three areas have distinct styles. In Guerrero, lacquerware is produced in and around Olinalá and almost exclusively on small boxes, producing designs by layering the colors then scraping to create designs by exposing the color underneath.
(L: Lacquered hen figure with eggs from Temascalzingo, Guerrero. R: Lacquered plates from Chiapa de Corzo Chiapas)
In Michoacan, the craft is concentrated in Patzcuaro and Uruapan. The work in Patzcuaro tends to be finer and more detailed, even with gold inlay… a result of the influence and affluence from the Asian trade that passed through here.
In Chiapas, the work is best known in Chiapa de Corzo, which has a musuem dedicated to the craft in the former Santo Domingo monastery. Here is where one is most likely to find fine pieces of lacquered gourds, along with masks and furniture.
Lacquered plates with gold inlay by Mario Agustín Gaspar of Patzcuaro
However, it is not easy for amateurs to distinguish between true lacquerware and pieces which are simply painted with a brilliant gloss, which makes shopping in reputable locations/with reputable vendors very important. Or even better, visiting the towns where the pieces are made. Patzcuaro is a major tourist attraction, with Uruapan not far from there. Chiapa de Corzo is not far from the popular San Cristobál de las Casas and is the embarkment point for the Sumidero Canyon. Only Olinalá is difficult to get to, but there is a reputable vendor in the San Juan Market in Mexico City who specializes in these wares.