The cost of Maki‑e can be measured by the volume of labor put into creating the piece. Use of Shishiai techniques will make a piece more expensive; use of simpler Hira Maki‑e will make the price more affordable. This doesn't mean that Shishiai techniques will create better Maki‑e; the beauty of Maki‑e does not depend on whether or not difficult techniques were used to make it. It depends on the artist's designs and technical skills. Any Hira Maki‑e or Togidashi Maki‑e can be beautifully designed. Our judgment can be aided by learning about the art of Maki‑e, and we will be able to assess the quality, beauty and cost ourselves. I believe that the value of Maki‑e should be decided by the buyer or viewer themselves.
None of our Maki‑e artists is a Pablo Picasso or a Vladimir Horowitz of Maki‑e, but they are very talented and diligent artists. Interestingly, they like to be called "artisans" or "craftsmen" rather than "artists". They are all humble, honest and friendly. The pool of Maki‑e artists in Yamanaka or Wajima is dwindling now. No more than 50 artists in either area are left, and those numbers are decreasing. Maki‑e, which is extremely labor-intensive and time‑consuming, simply does not attract young people in Japan anymore. There is no Mozart in the Maki‑e world that can finish a Maki‑e overnight. It requires time to paint, time to dry, and that process is repeated numerous times and is also weather-dependent. So, no matter how experienced the artist, they still need two to six months to complete a Maki‑e work as small as a Netsuke or as big as a screen.
From simple Hira Maki‑e to the most complicated time-consuming Shishiai Togidashi Maki‑e, the cost rises in direct proportion to the volume of labor. The influence of Maki‑e pens in the Maki‑e world is but a trifle. Before meeting us, our Maki‑e artists would paint Maki‑e on Natsume (a small tea container for the tea ceremony), all kinds of boxes, trays, dinnerwares and other larger pieces. My guess is that 10,000 Maki‑e pens are made in Japan annually, requiring 250 lbs of Urushi, based on the fact that one pen uses an average of 10 grams apiece. Nationwide, 500 tons or 110,000 lbs of Urushi are used annually, so Maki‑e pens only account for 0.0023% of that amount. Maybe the reason for using synthetic Urushi instead of the more expensive genuine Urushi is unrelated to its lower cost, but synthetic Urushi is easier to use and does not require the usage of difficult techniques. However, it lacks the unique membrane of genuine Urushi, which is not only incredibly hard and durable, but makes for beautiful colors that retain their warmth and brilliance for hundreds of years.
We all know that Urushi is harder than rock. Metal can melt in aqua regia (royal water), but it can not melt Urushi away, because of its protective membrane. Yet, Urushi has a very serious weak point; it can last thousands of years under a roof, but not under the sun. The membrane will eventually tarnish, losing its luster and becoming like chalk. Japanese think that Urushi is a living thing. Urushi is grown by its mother trees, with help from the sun, earth and water, and is then oxidized by an enzyme called "laccase," which hardens it. But in sunlight, the hardened Urushi will decrease its weight under ultraviolet rays and be gone with the wind. It is viewed as just another example of the circle of life.