Why Australian black opal is one of the most expensive gemstones in the world

  • High-quality black opal can cost $10,000 per carat.
  • But even for an expert, finding it isn’t easy.
  • After investing tens of thousands of dollars, a miner might not find a single gem.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: High-quality black opal can cost over $10,000 per carat, making it one of the world’s most expensive gemstones. But mining black opal isn’t easy. After investing tens of thousands of dollars, a miner might not find a single gem. So, what makes black opal so hard to find? And why is it so expensive?

Black opal is one of the most enchanting stones in the world, sought after for its seemingly infinite display of colors. Compared to common opal, which is usually one color, black opal exhibits many different colors contrasted by a dark body tone.

Frederick: It’s simply the most stunning gemstone on the planet. It’s just remarkably beautiful. You can put the thing away for a week, pick it out and look at it, and you can still see things inside it that you’ve never, ever seen before.

Narrator: Opal is found in several parts of the world, including Ethiopia, Brazil, and Mexico. But over 90% of the world’s opal comes from Australia. And a lot of the black opal is found here, at Lightning Ridge. It’s located on the edge of the Outback, with a population of just over 2,000 people. Miners have been searching for opal here for over 100 years. But even for experts, finding black opal isn’t easy.

Frederick: If you were to start mining tomorrow, and once you learn mining skills — and I’ve been mining for 40 years — we’d be an equal chance, just because there’s nothing really that can tell you, “Oh, there is opal in that piece of ground” or “There’s not opal in that piece of ground.”

Narrator: Miners start by drilling a vertical shaft in an area that they think contains opal. Then they must clear out an underground room large enough to start digging at the rock.

Frederick: The basic idea of mining is basically extract the opal clay out from the ground, put it onto a truck, I take the truck to a puddling site in town, and check if there’s opal in that.

Narrator: The equipment needed to mine and the cost to register your claim can be extremely expensive.

Frederick: Really, if you wanted to rock up here and be serious, it’d probably … need $150,000 to $100,000 in your pocket to have a go.

Narrator: But buying the equipment doesn’t guarantee that miners will find black opal.

Frederick: Some people will go, “Oh, there’s definitely money there, because next door they got $200,000 and there was a bit of color drilled up here. It’s got to have come over.” And there’s a whole epic story of why there should be opal there, and you go and dig there, and it’s not.

Narrator: Miners search for areas in the rock with trace amounts of opal. They follow these spots, called “nobbies,” hoping to find more opal deeper in the rock.

Frederick: You’ll keep going in a straight line till the trace runs out, and then come back where there was trace in the wall, go left and right, and then if that stops, then you come back and do it again. And you can come back and do it again. So you’ve always got that in the back of your head, you know, “When do I leave, how long do I stay, have I stayed too long? I’m wasting time, I’m wasting money for my next patch.”

There’s a nobby there. When you’re in a really good pocket, see how these nobbies are sitting close like that together? They can be like a cluster, like a bunch of grapes. They’re all sitting around each other, and they’ve all got color. Hear that? [scraping] See that sound? It’s like glass. So, you get that big one out, there we go. Doesn’t have any value. Common black opal.

Narrator: Opal is formed when silica-rich groundwater hardens in rock over millions of years. Large silica spheres within the stone diffract light, creating vibrant colors. That play of color makes each gem unique. But for miners like Frederick, digging for black opal is a gamble.

Frederick: The human factor is the biggest factor in finding opal. If you’ve got a piggy bank of $10,000 or $20,000 and then all of a sudden in one month or two months you’ve blown all of that budget because you’ve had breakdowns and you’ve had things occur that you didn’t think of, and then you go, “Well, I’m $20,000 down. What do I do here?”

I’ve been full-time mining for about over 45 years, and quite often I say to myself, “How did you do it? How did you survive that long making it your only job?” I’ve done … I’ve done good. Not great. I haven’t been in the millions. I haven’t been up there in the fantasy pocket, you know?

Narrator: Once rough opal is extracted and processed from the dirt, it has to be cut and polished. This is when the real value of the gem is determined.

Jo Lindsay: A black opal can vary from … starting at maybe $1,000 a carat for run of your mill and going right up to tens of thousands of dollars for that really exquisite top quality. The main stone is 241 carats. A few thousand dollars a carat wouldn’t be unreasonable. A lot of money. [laughs]

Narrator: The color, brightness, and patterns can all influence the price of black opal.

Jo: What you’re looking for in the best-quality opal is a black stone with really bright color and as much red and other colors as possible. So, the most valuable black opal of all is a really bright red stone on a very black base that just glows. And you don’t see them very often at all.

Narrator: That lack of supply is a huge driver for the price of black opal. We can barely keep up with the demand at the moment. As soon as you find a gem-quality stone, you know you’ve got a buyer for it.

Narrator: Between 2005 and 2006, approximately $30 million of opal was mined at Lightning Ridge. And for fans of black opal, there’s simply nothing else like it. It’s just a magic stone, and when I came to Lightning Ridge, just the beauty of it captivated me.

Frederick: It’s an awesome job. I would love to find two or three more good claims, like, one more good patch, get rid of the debts that we have, and set it up and offer the opportunity for my son to take over the job.

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Why pule donkey cheese is the most expensive cheese in the world

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Pule donkey cheese is the most expensive cheese in the world. Produced by only one farm in the world, pule will cost you about $600 for a single pound. Making it requires more time and effort than most other cheeses. You need over 6 1/2 gallons of donkey’s milk just to make 1 kilogram of cheese. That’s 2 1/2 times more than what you need to make mozzarella. So, how does pule compare to other types of cheese? And why is it so expensive?

Even in the diverse world of cheese, pule is unique. There’s only one place in the world that makes it, and that’s on this farm in the Zasavica Special Nature Reserve. Slobodan Simić founded the reserve 24 years ago in Serbia. It’s one of just three areas in all of former Yugoslavia that protects a special endangered breed of Balkan donkey. Pule is made with 60% donkey milk and 40% goat milk, and it requires months and many donkeys to produce it.

Slobodan Simić: Everything was by accident, and nothing was by accident. Our main idea about donkeys was to save this species, because the number of donkeys in Serbia was less than 1,000. That’s when I decided to build the first farm for dairy donkeys. The focus was on the dairy donkeys. And when we reached 200 donkeys, we had a surplus of milk, I thought that we should also make cheese.

Narrator: There are only about 20 donkeys that produce milk on the farm at a time. And even then, each one won’t produce much. Each donkey is milked carefully by hand three times a day. If the farmers don’t empty all of the milk, the donkeys won’t continue making it.

Slobodan Simić: We’ve tried to milk them by machine, but that has turned out to be impossible. Because a donkey is not made like a cow, to give milk, only her baby can suck it. So when we tried to put on the milking machine, it would block the milk.

Narrator: Today, farmers care for 250 donkeys, but they can’t always take milk from all of them. Similar to cows, a female donkey will only produce milk once it’s had a baby. And each one carries a baby for a year and two weeks. Then farmers must wait another three months, once the baby has taken milk for itself, before they can begin gathering their own to make cheese. They need 6.6 gallons of milk in total to make just 1 kilogram of cheese. And a donkey produces under 1 gallon of milk per day. That’s far less than what comes from a cow, which can produce as much as 15 gallons of milk a day.

Each donkey will only produce milk for six months. Then you must wait another year to collect milk from that same donkey again. Pule is only sold on this farm and a few others the reserve partners with, another factor that ups the final value. The farm can produce between 50 and 70 kilograms of cheese a year, but Slobodan only ever sells about a third of that. And it’s not just because of pule’s staggering price. You couldn’t legally buy pule cheese in some parts of the world, even if you wanted to.

Slobodan Simić: This milk is only consumed unboiled, fresh, which is an additional problem for the placement of this milk to the EU market, because unpasteurized milk can’t be sold in the EU. But if you pasteurize it, you’ll lose all of those precious ingredients, and then you have something that’s not valuable.

Narrator: Technically, pule cheese can be produced with milk from any type of donkey, and therefore any farm that raises donkeys. But there’s one major roadblock. Just having donkey’s milk doesn’t mean you have all you need to make this cheese. Pule is made in a very specific way, using a recipe only Slobodan and one other person in the world knows. It’s because donkey milk contains less fat than the milk of other animals, which means it holds less of the protein casein that allows many other cheeses to coagulate on their own.

The recipe requires goat milk and a secret mix of additives and bacteria. This is what allows the milk to form curds, an essential stage of any cheesemaking process. Without this, it wouldn’t be possible to make pule at all.

Slobodan Simić: No one can make it. Not just at home, but well-known milk experts from many countries have tried to make it, and they have failed. That’s because of the additional bacteria and substances invented by our expert that succeeded in coagulating the milk, which is known to have little casein for coagulation. Many have tried, but no one managed to make it.

Narrator: The cheese is finally placed into 50-gram molds to age for a few days. Once removed from the molds, it’s set in another room to age for at least a month more. The final product is crumbly and soft with a rich flavor.

Slobodan Simić: Genuine, unique, and special.

Narrator: The cost of preserving the donkey species is another element to keep in mind when considering pule’s huge value. Slobodan must maintain the land, buy food for the donkeys, and hire workers to care for them. In a year, he spends about $100,000 just to keep the farm running. And unless producing pule becomes easier or someone else in the world discovers how to make it, nothing is likely to bring down the price of this incredibly rare Serbian cheese.

Slobodan Simić: In life, there are moments when you discover something and you feel that it is the time to dedicate yourself to that cause. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve never regretted this decision, and I’m very happy that I was able to build a reserve like this, along with my friends and companions.

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A pound of cinnamon quills can cost $27 – here’s why it’s one of the most expensive spices

  • Ceylon cinnamon is made from the dried inner bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka.
  • One pound of these quills can cost $27. That’s because it’s difficult and costly to produce.
  • Even some of the most experienced cinnamon peelers can only make a few pounds of quills a day.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Following is a transcription of the video.

Narrator: Ceylon cinnamon is native to just one region of the world, and producing it requires hours of delicate work. Even the most skilled workers can make only a few pounds of quills a day. One pound of cinnamon quills can cost $27, but not all spices labeled cinnamon are the Ceylon variety. Many in the Western market are actually cheaper types of cinnamon called cassia. So what makes Ceylon cinnamon so favorable? And why is it so expensive?

Ceylon cinnamon is named after the old British name for Sri Lanka, and it is often considered “real” cinnamon. It is made from the dried inner bark of a tree called Cinnamomum verum. Growing these trees is an investment. Farmers must wait four years after a tree is planted before they can begin harvesting. At harvest, workers break down the branches early in the morning, when the bark is still moist. Ruwanpura must continuously care for the trees throughout the year, otherwise the branches won’t be suitable for making cinnamon at all. The rigorous nature of this job has only just begun.

Now peelers must do the delicate and essential work of stripping the inner bark of each branch by hand. This is the most labor-intensive part of the process, and it’s not as easy as simply shaving the outside of the bark as you would the skin from a potato. To produce the most valuable cinnamon, the bark must be made extremely thin. The thinner the quills are, the more costly they will be. Ruwanpura has spent 40 years mastering this skill. Soon after the bark is removed, each piece dries under the sun and curls up within a few minutes. After drying, the small pieces are stuffed inside a straight piece of bark, forming one 42-inch quill. By the end of a long day, workers will have only produced about 3 pounds of quills. Those then need to dry for three to four days before they’re packed into bales and sent off to a separate facility. That’s where there’ll be graded and officially priced based on their width.

PDRomanis and Sons buys bales of cinnamon from various peelers. At its facility, quills are graded over 10 scales. The most valuable quills are classified as Alba. It takes a peeler four times longer to produce one kilogram of Alba than to produce the same quantity of lower grades. The leftover, smaller cuts are turned into ground cinnamon and make up the cheapest form. But even the most valuable quills are often confused with a more widely accessible and cheaper variety of cinnamon.

Cassia comes from another kind of cinnamon tree, called Cinnamomum cassia, and it doesn’t require as much time or effort to make. Cassia bark is hard and sturdy, so quills are made as one curled piece of bark without the fillings. Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is tender and soft and needs those inner layers to prevent the quill from breaking. Cassia is very fragrant and brown, whereas real cinnamon is paler, with a milder flavor. Cassia also contains, on average, higher levels of coumarin, an organic compound that can cause liver damage if consumed in large amounts. This is why researchers say Ceylon cinnamon is ultimately the healthier option. But if you’re buying cinnamon in the US, it can be hard to tell the difference between them.

Part of the confusion between the two comes from the use of the label cinnamon. In the US, it is legal to label both Ceylon and cassia cinnamon as cinnamon, while in the UK and other countries, cassia must be labeled cassia and cannot be classified simply as cinnamon. Regardless of what it’s called in the US, consumers worldwide prefer the real thing. In 2018, Ceylon cinnamon accounted for more global revenue than any other variety. And even as demand is expected to grow through 2025, climate change already poses a serious threat to cinnamon production. In recent years, Sri Lanka has experienced droughts over several months. And these long periods of dry weather can kill cinnamon trees, which need marshy, wet soil to survive. There’s also a shortage of cinnamon peelers, another threat to production that’s likely to drive up prices. This industry relies on experienced peelers who can practice the difficult work of making these quills over many years.

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Why printer ink is so expensive

  • Printer ink can often be more expensive than the printer itself.
  • Using an outdated “razor-and-blades” business model, printer companies sell printers at a loss and make up for it in ink sales.
  • Printer companies do whatever they can to squash competition from more economical and sustainable third party options by frequently updating the firmware in the cartridges.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories. 

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: A gallon of printer ink can cost you $12,000. When in cartridge form, it’s more expensive than vintage Champagne and even human blood. In fact, it can be cheaper to buy an entire printer than it is to purchase new ink cartridges. So why is printer ink so expensive?

Let’s start with the first printers. No, not that far. No. Come on. There we go. Inkjet printers were first developed in the 1960s, and early computer inks were made from food dye and water. Because of this, they would fade after a few months, so companies had to develop a dye that gave permanent photographic quality. In 1988, Hewlett-Packard achieved just that, with the first mass-market inkjet printer, which sold for about $1,000. But a lot has changed since then.

Today, you can buy a brand-new printer for around $35. But there’s a catch. When the ink runs out in one of these printers, you need to buy specific cartridges, and these cartridges are expensive. So why are the cartridges so pricey?

David Connett: Oh that’s simple: greed. And an outdated razor-and-blades model.

Narrator:  This is David Connett. He’s the former editor of The Recycler and has been lobbying for change in the printer-ink industry for years.

Connett: They sell the printers cheap. They sell the consumables at a very expensive price. And basically it’s a formula: The cheaper the printer, the more expensive the consumables.

Narrator:  Once you’ve bought a printer that uses cartridges you’re trapped in a cycle. You have no choice but to buy them, or throw away your printer. As a printer is typically a one-time purchase, companies don’t mind selling them at a loss and making the money back through cartridge sales. The HP Envy 4520 all-in-one printer, for example, sells for $70 but is estimated to cost $120 to manufacture. The loss they make on printers means that companies need to sell ink cartridges to make a profit, and this model has led to a battleground between printer manufacturers and third-party ink suppliers. The companies do everything they can to keep you buying official ink cartridges. Manufacturers install microchips into their cartridges and frequently issue firmware updates to prevent the use of third-party ink, which can be more affordable.

Connett: Last year, almost 900 firmware upgrades were issued by just nine printer manufacturers, so that’s almost three a day. I mean, that’s just, like, either absolute incompetence, ’cause you’ve got to do it so much, or it is a definite stealth tactic to control the market.

Narrator: Printer companies attribute the high costs to the research and development that goes into perfecting printer ink. The materials they use, however, cost very little.

Connett: The manufacturing cost of ink is between €20 and €40 a liter.

Narrator: And a lot of the ink you buy never even gets used for printing. According to a 2018 test by Consumer Reports, more than half the ink you buy could end up lost in maintenance cycles for cleaning the printheads. And printers that use multiple-color ink cartridges also stop working as soon as one color runs out, even if the other colors are still full. These days, you’re getting even less for your money. While the cartridges themselves are the same size and price, they often contain far less ink inside than they used to. The ink in many manufacturers’ cartridges has shrunk from 20 mil to around 5 mil over the past few years, without any reduction in price. The original-size 20 mil cartridges are often still on sale but are often sold as extra-large cartridges for even more money. And some new cartridges can have as little as 3 milliliters of ink inside. Some companies have now even started ink subscriptions, deactivating your cartridges remotely if you print more than your allocated pages. Laser printers offer a lower-cost alternative to inkjet but produce a lower-quality printed image. The real solution for many, though, would be to offer more-efficient ink cartridges.

Connett: This product, you know, can be better engineered. They could liaise with the aftermarket to actually, you know, find a solution that works for everybody because, you know, this, ultimately, this is bad for the consumer, because it’s overpriced and expensive, and it’s bad for the environment, because it doesn’t need to be made that way.

Narrator: We reached out to Canon and HP for comment. HP replied with this statement:

“Original HP ink and toner cartridges deliver the best possible printing experience for customers. We make significant investments in R&D each year to provide the highest levels of print quality, safety and environmental sustainability. When customers purchase HP, they are reducing plastic waste and contributing to a circular economy. And we work tirelessly to maximize value for our customers, including Instant Ink, our “ink delivery” subscription service which includes ink, shipping and recycling.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on August 19, 2019. 

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Florida stone crab claws are one of the priciest seafoods you can buy. Here’s what makes them so expensive.

  • Stone crab claws are one of the most expensive seafoods you can buy.
  • A plate of four 7-ounce stone crab claws at a restaurant can cost you $140.
  • They’re partly pricey due to how they’re caught, which is can be exhaustive and sometimes dangerous.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Stone crab claws are one of the priciest seafoods you can buy. And depending on their size, a pound of claws at a restaurant can cost as much as $70. But catching these crabs is hard work. Strangely enough, fishers can only harvest the claws from the crabs, while the bodies must be returned to the ocean. So, what makes these claws so coveted? And why are they so expensive?

You can only fish for stone crab on the southeastern coast of the US, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Mexico. And it’s Florida where more stone crabs are caught than anywhere else. These crustaceans are markedly more expensive than other popular crabs. A pound of claws can cost two times the price of Alaskan snow crab legs. Part of what makes these crabs so costly is the labor-intensive process of catching them.

Ernie Piton: There’s a nice crab.

Narrator: Ernie Piton Jr. has been commercially fishing for stone crabs for over 40 years. With limited time to harvest each year, his crew must start their days early, sailing out before the sun rises. The process begins with dropping traps down to the ocean floor.

Kevin Henry: This is probably the funnest part, you know? You get to be a little more physical, you know what I mean? It’s a little bit of a rhythm thing going on here. It’s like dancing mariachi.

Narrator: But plucking these claws can be a dangerous process.

Bill Kelly: The claws on an adult crab can have as much as 9,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. With the enormous pressure that’s exerted, they could actually pop a finger off at the joint.

Kevin: These crabs, they have a mind of their own. You can easily get bit, you know, if you’re not careful. I’ve only been bit maybe, say, eight times in my career. Popped over a million claws in my day.

Narrator: The crew leaves the traps in the water for about two weeks before they’re pulled in by a rope. Then each one must be sorted thoroughly.

Kevin: We come back in a couple weeks, and then got a couple in the trap, we’re gonna pull them out. We’re gonna pop their claws and hope for a good day.

Narrator: Crews break off the claws quickly, so they don’t keep the crabs out of water for too long. But even if a trap is full of crabs, Kevin can’t necessarily take every claw. The state requires all harvested claws to be at least 2 7/8 inches long. Crabbers can legally break off both claws if they meet the required size.

Ernie: The ones that look smaller, we measure them on the gauge. Like that one.

Narrator: Crabs are one of few animals that can regenerate. When a crab loses a claw — or two — it can grow each one back in time. On average, claws can take up to three years to grow large enough to harvest again, which is why the state requires that crabbers pay close attention to each claw’s size. This ensures fishers don’t remove one prematurely. But despite the claws’ ability to regrow, some researchers have questioned the sustainability of this system.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that 46% to 82% of crabs died from the loss of two claws, while 23% to 59% died from the removal of one. That’s compared to just 12.8% of crabs that died when no claws were removed. Crabs can also only regrow a claw if the joint that linked it is left intact. Otherwise, it’ll bleed to death. This makes the way these claws are broken all the more important for preserving the fishery’s future.

Hiring enough people to make the operation run smoothly is another reason for the high price of these claws. And then there’s one other cost you’d never expect. Each trip requires 900 pounds of pig’s feet for bait. And that’s just about half of the total cost of fishing for the day.

Ernie: Normal running cost to go stone crabbing today is about $1,100 to leave the dock. Bait prices have gone up, fuel prices have gone up. You know, the track tag prices have gone up.

Narrator: After 10 hours on the boat, Ernie’s crew must boil and ice their catch as soon as they return, otherwise the claws won’t stay fresh. They finish the day by weighing each claw, which ultimately sets the final value. Claws are sold in four sizes. At Billy’s Stone Crab, restaurant prices range from $35 to $70 per pound.

Brian Hershey: We run about 4,000 pounds of stone crab through the restaurant each week. On a busy weekend, we sell 700 to 800 pounds of stone crab.

Narrator: The most expensive order costs $140. The plate is made up of four 7-ounce colossal claws, which yields just under 1 pound of crabmeat. Fresh-cooked claws sold on ice are less expensive, but even then, the mediums will cost you $29 per pound.

Years ago, stone crabs weren’t such valuable food. In the 1890s, they were nothing more than bycatch in spiny-lobster traps. Fishers began to keep the crabs that fell into those traps, and by the late 20th century, the stone crab fishery had become one of the most valuable industries in Florida. Today, it’s worth $30 million, and the prices of these claws aren’t likely to drop anytime soon.

Data from the FWC show the number of crabs caught each year has declined by 712,000 pounds. That’s since peak harvest in the late 1990s. Many commercial harvesters have also started fishing farther offshore, pointing to a lesser number of crabs in the area. The FWC says both of these changes signify a threat of overfishing, and prices have gone up in order to keep the fishery profitable.

To further protect the species’ future, the FWC instated even stricter regulations last year. Two changes include an increase in the minimum size of harvestable claws and cutting the fishing season short by two weeks. These limitations aren’t likely to lower the cost of stone crab claws. But the goal is to help preserve them and keep Florida fishers busy for years to come.

Kevin: One crab, I remember, my favorite crab I ever saw, it looked like a Louis Vuitton pattern. Bunch of diamonds. And it was just a pretty thing.

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Sơn mài is a costly form of lacquer painting in Vietnam. Here’s what makes these paintings so expensive

  • Sơn mài is a traditional Vietnamese form of lacquer painting.
  • The paint is made with a toxic lacquer harvested from a tree native to Southeast Asia called the Rhus succedanea.
  • Along with costly raw materials, these pieces require months of applying several layers of paint and sanding them back.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Sơn mài is a traditional Vietnamese form of lacquer painting created using a toxic lacquer harvested from one region of the country. It requires months of application and sanding back layers of paint to build up the image. Last year, a sơn mài painting sold at auction for $972,000. So, what makes these paintings so special? And why are they so expensive?

Phạm Chính Trung: You never truly know what’s underneath a lacquer painting as you are completing it. And so, the process involves the artists sanding the work into shape, slowly revealing the colors, giving the artist a sense of anticipation as he is crossing the finishing line, and artists love that feeling.

Narrator: Phạm Chính Trung has dedicated almost 50 years to mastering sơn mài and knows how equally tiring and rewarding the craft can be. It is an art form of incredible value in Vietnamese culture, for both the time and skill it requires and the exclusive natural materials needed to make it. The process of making lacquer paint begins in the forests of Vietnam, where planters collect resin from a toxic wax tree native to Southeast Asia called the Rhus succedanea. Planters must cut into more than 400 trees to retrieve between 1 and 1.5 kilograms of resin.

Tạ Thị Thu Hương: The rhus tree is harvested after three years of planting, after which it can be harvested for four to five years. To get the sap, we’ll have to start at 4 a.m. Making incisions in the bark, using mussel shells to catch the resin. We collect that resin after three to four hours. 

Narrator: After harvesting, the lacquer must be removed of any impurities and mixed for several hours before it’s suitable for painting. One of the principle features of sơn mài is the depth created by adding several layers of paint and sanding them back. These layers aren’t always visible in the finished work but are what differentiate lacquer painting from other common painting styles. With oil painting, artists paint from back to front, painting the landscape first and the details later. The process of lacquer painting is the opposite.

Phạm Chính Trung: The two styles are a bit different. Because the sketch and the details are painted over, they can’t be seen once the painting is finished but will eventually reappear when it’s sanded down. It’s nerve-wracking for that reason. It’s hard to mess up the picture, but you have to see if you have used the right material. Are the colors in the right shades? Right? Are they intense enough? Your technique shows in those contrasting features. Without it, the painting becomes homogeneous, almost like an oil painting.

Narrator: Artists mix natural ingredients to create colors, like eggshells to make white or cinnabar, a toxic ore, for red. In some cases, artists add leaves of silver, sometimes even gold, to create a gentle sheen. These substances can be one of the costliest parts of sơn mài painting.

Phạm Chính Trung: The base of cinnabar is mercury. 1 ounce of cinnabar, on the palm of your hand, is just the size of a quail egg, but you can feel the weight. You see – 1 million Vietnamese dongs (~$45) for a tiny bag like this. It’s very costly to use, material-wise.

Narrator: While the raw materials of the painting may be more expensive than many other styles, the skill and the work of the artist are what set the final value. Along with the immense patience sơn mài requires, each work is unique and unpredictable. That’s because painters are never quite sure how the layers will resurface through sanding. This can either increase the value of the work or force an artist to start over.

Phạm Chính Trung: Usually, traditional lacquer painters, if they’ve understood the technique and a clear idea of their initial sketch, can be in control of 80% of their idea, 80% of their ideas. The remaining 20% is luck. Accident. Sometimes it can make the painting much better than originally intended or fail the requirements during other times. The artist must start over then.

Narrator: Painters must be careful to let each layer fully dry before sanding. Otherwise, colors or designs could be ruined. There’s no set amount of time a layer takes to dry, as it largely depends on the weather that day.

Phạm Chính Trung: Each time a painting is finished – paintings that use traditional materials always need to dry. They need humidity. Ideally, when indoor humidity is between 70% and 80% the lacquer will dry very quickly. It can’t dry on a dry day. It’s because of the air humidity. The water vapor in the air is the catalyst for components in the lacquer to connect with one another, resulting in the lacquer drying. If all goes well, it’ll dry in a couple of days. If the air is dry, for example, it can take three days for the paint to cure sometimes. To make one lacquer painting, it can take months.

Narrator: After weeks of work, pieces are polished with coal powder, which creates the smooth surface and lasting shine of sơn mài. Artists have used lacquer for its glossy finish for thousands of years. One of its best-known applications is Japanese lacquerware — decorative pieces of furniture, boxes, and dinnerware. But in the early 20th century, Vietnamese artists developed an interest in lacquer painting and created a style unique to the world. Impressive as these works can be, the process is both costly and arduous. And that’s why Phạm Chính Trung believes the future of this tradition will depend on finding more artists willing to learn it.

Phạm Chính Trung: To maintain it, we need people. Simply relying on the painters who are passionate about it won’t work. It won’t last. You can’t maintain it that way. There needs to be growth.  If we only care about finding ways of restoring a tradition when it is gone, it’s impossible. Right? How can we? Once it’s lost, the line is broken.

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