San Francisco’s master of modern kintsugi

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The odd gold vein on the surface of a handmade ceramic plate may indicate the repair of a break via an ancient Japanese craft called kintsugi. Flaunting such imperfection may seem counterintuitive for a fine-dining restaurant like Saison, where the pristine quality of the artisan dishware indicates a certain Michelin-star level of taste and consideration. But when this singular plate is presented at the table, diners never fail to admire the beautifully flawed piece. At this point, longtime Saison server Joseph Weaver arrives at the table to tell its story.

A self-taught kintsugi artisan, Weaver has a long history with Japanese craft, having studied bonsai and tea ceremony while growing up in Denver. But, like many youthful pursuits, this fascination with Japanese culture fell by the wayside until about six years ago. During a fateful preservice lineup at Quince, where Weaver, who moved to San Francisco in 2011, was working at the time, one angry chef had produced a box of dishes, each handmade by a distinguished artisan and each broken into pieces.

“I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to make an art installation with all the stuff you guys are breaking,’” says Weaver, 39. The sarcastic remark flipped a light bulb in his head. Through his bygone Japanese studies, he had become casually aware of kintsugi (translation: golden joinery), which dates back to a 15th century shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimasa, whose favorite tea bowl, or chawan, had been broken and subsequently repaired with staples, a crude fix that he presumably found disruptive to the elegance and simplicity of Japanese craft and ceremony.

In response, artisans of the era developed a technique that forged beautiful seams with glue and gold dust. In kintsugi, broken vessels not only return to a state of wholeness, but are also revered for their beautiful bond, honoring the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Artisan Joe Weaver demonstrates the kintsugi process. Photo: Courtesy Joseph Weaver

Photo: Courtesy Joseph Weaver

Artisan Joe Weaver demonstrates the kintsugi process.

“It’s a very complex idea, but part of wabi-sabi is about holding imperfection above perfection,” Weaver says. “Everyone can relate to flaws, which may be why people find this art form particularly compelling. They see themselves in the work.”

In the decision to become a full-time artist in October, Weaver, who is also a professional photographer, connects most to the break itself, having spent his career working in high-end restaurants. “Leaving felt like a fracture,” he says. “To be a part of the fine-dining industry in San Francisco is more than a job; it’s a lifestyle.”

The solitude of an artist’s life was a big change, but not unchartered territory. A self-identified introvert, Weaver also spent much of his time as a kid consumed by another exacting creative outlet: Painting warrior miniatures for a board game called Warhammer 40,000. Such an eye for detail came in handy decades later, when he found himself reverse-engineering the kintsugi process after discovering that existing artisans were notoriously tight-lipped about the craft. (Although there were a few YouTube videos that helped.)

“What I’m doing now is not traditional kintsugi by any means,” says Weaver, who repairs vessels for such local fine-dining restaurants as Saison, Akiko’s Restaurant, Angler and Atelier Crenn, and also takes on private commissions. For example, the traditional method uses a plant-based lacquer called urushi to bond the sanded break. With this particular adhesive, the curing process could take weeks, months or even as much as a year, especially for plates (or vases, donabe pots, mugs, tagines, candleholders and platters) with more intricate puzzle pieces to reassemble. Weaver is not bound to urushi; he also uses other strong, food-safe polymers that dry in a matter of days.

Artisan Joe Weaver’s kintsugi tools. Photo: Joseph Weaver

Photo: Joseph Weaver

Artisan Joe Weaver’s kintsugi tools.

While the first bonding agent is curing, another application of the chosen polymer is applied, and this time dusted with the metal powder that will glorify the fault lines and give the piece a noble new identity. In addition to the standard gold dust, Weaver also works with platinum, silver and bronze, and he has even been experimenting with 3D printed metal. But for a pair of 3-foot-tall white-porcelain lamps he recently repaired for a couple of antiques collectors, he used a bright blue acrylic, and the result was strangely gothic.

“I see these lines as blood,” says Weaver, who regards his work on the pieces that come to him as part of their lives. And sometimes they return again, newly broken, even after he’s sent them back into the world with their pretty scarring.

“The pieces have a history, a path that they’ve traveled, and a path that they will continue on,” says the artist. “Just like us.”

Joseph Weaver Kintsugi:

Leilani Marie Labong is The Chronicle’s contributing home editor.