Money, apparently does grow on trees or at least in ancient times it did. It’s been recorded that rare tree sap was used as a form of payment for tax because it was deemed so valuable. This sap from the tree was harvested and refined into lacquer with incredible clarity and sheen. Many thousands of years ago, it was reserved for imperial palaces, religious temples and shrines. Early examples have been dated to 7000BC. It has been considered almost a wonder of nature – when cured, this lacquer is almost impermeable to the elements. In Japan, where these trees grow, lacquer is called “Urushi” as it comes from the urushi tree. The official name for the lacquer tree is Toxicodendron vernicifluum, the first word of which translates loosely to “toxic tree”. The sap from the Urushi tree has been harvested for millennia and admired for its luster and strength, but in its concentrated raw form, the sap can be poisonous. Oddly, when refined, it becomes harmless and even food safe.

Refinement

The tree resin is collected and stored in a temperature controlled environment for 3 to 5 years. When ready to be refined, hot water is added to the sap to make a slurry. Cotton is then added to the slurry and any unwanted bark adheres to the cotton. With a centrifuge, the tree sap slurry spins out the precious lacquer. It is then stirred vigorously and heated to achieve the desired consistency. Once the lacquer has been applied to an object like a bowl, a desk or even a building, it is transformed to then have a vivid shine. This process has become so synonymous with Japan that it is even referred to as Japanning, meaning to coat with lacquer.

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It seems appropriate that Kawai, a long standing Japanese piano manufacturer, would use this art form of refining urushi and apply it to their pianos. In celebration of 60 years in North America, Kawai has released 60 grand pianos and 60 upright pianos with urushi panels. In addition to this specialized lacquer, gold dust has also been added to the urushi to further enhance these piano parts and create an illusionary effect.

Maki-e (pronounced ma’-keah), is the process of adding pure gold dust to the Japanese urushi. While the gold creates metallic flake sparkle, the lacquer enhances and suspends the dust in a clearcoat to create an almost iridescent look. According to Kawai “After harvesting, the sap is filtered, dehydrated, and homogenized, resulting in an artisan clear lacquer. This lacquer can then be tinted in black, yellow, red, green, or brown. The lacquer is then applied under the most stringent conditions, and after it dries, a second layer is applied, making the process extremely labour-intensive – and for all who will own one, extraordinarily worth it. Using a technique called ‘Maki-e,” the Kawai logo and the 60th-anniversary logo are then created by sprinkling fine gold flakes onto the wet lacquer for a spellbinding effect.”

At first glance, one would think that the piano has 2-tone black and exotic cuts of wood. But what you’re actually looking at is the urushi effect that almost looks like wood. Each one has it’s own patterns in the lacquer. No two pianos will be the same. The gold dust suspended in the urushi gives it an almost 3-dimensional look.

Two of the most popular pianos made by Kawai have been chosen for the 60th Anniversary. The Kawai GX2, their 5’11” long grand piano and the Kawai K-500, their 51” tall upright piano will feature these limited-edition accent panels. Each piano is numbered in the limited edition and truly these are individualized works of art.

For those who aren’t familiar with Kawai, they were founded in 1927 in Japan and have been making pianos ever since their inception. Today, they are considered a very high level piano featuring their third generation state-of-the-art Millennium ABS-carbon action parts, solid spruce soundboards, proprietary Neotex keytops, and one of the few companies that still manufacture their own hammers for a signature warmth to their tone.

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