How to Clean Inlaid Mother of Pearl Lacquer Art


I am always being asked by my customers how to clean their inlaid mother of pearl lacquer wall hangings and furniture. Lacquer paint is a high-gloss, hard paint that not only colors wood but provides it with a thick layer of protection and gloss. Lacquer paint prevents water and stains from soaking into the porous wood surface. Some oriental art uses lacquer paint and requires a special cleaning process to make sure you don't damage the artwork. Pay special care if the picture is old.                                                                                      


I recently purchased several inlaid mother of pearl art wall hangings from the 1960's that originated in Viet Nam. Once I got them home I realized they had a very heavy and oily tobacco film that was discoloring the mother of pearl and years of fingerprints were embedded on the front of these pictures. I also discovered that someone had placed stickers on one of the pieces leaving old adhesive marks.

I knew that I did not want to try anything like a "Goo Be Gone" because it would possibly remove the lacquer. Even though it is an oil base cleaner, it does soften adhesive surfaces so I did not want to chance damaging these wall hangings with that cleaner. If your art is really old, you should consider taking the picture to a professional art dealer for advice on your specific item.

Please keep in mind that applique mother of pearl has been glued on and sits on top of your art. When you are cleaning the applique type of mother of pearl art you should be aware that water or bumping the mother of pearl may cause it to pop off. I am not saying this to be dis-respectful, however, we have found that Asian glue does not hold up as well as American glue. It is not uncommon for applique soapstone or mother of pearl sculpture cutouts on art to pop off during shipping. We recommend small dabs of Super Glue to re-attach the cut-out to your art piece.




Mother-of-pearl is the term applied to the luminous substance obtained from the interior of shells from mollusks such as the green snail, nautilus and sea-ear, aquatic animal species found in fresh and marine warm waters. The Asian culture cultivated these creatures for their hard outer coverings' interior lustrous qualities. Once harvested, their shells were cut into precise pieces to form distinct images in mosaic once assembled. Lacquer, the extremely toxic adhesive material that bound these brilliant components together, is a milky white or light gray resin obtained in its liquid state from the lac tree (rhus verniciflua). Having been exposed to oxygen and hardened at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, this then-plasticized substance is durable and resistant to most of the elements. Highly luminous shell fragments, cut by trained artists, were delicately arranged in wet lacquer on an object, forming a distinct image for decorative, narrative or ceremonial purposes.


The earliest evidence in Asia for the pearl shell technique, fragmentary as it is, dates from Bronze Age China's Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 B.C.). The Chinese mother-of-pearl ornamental tradition in art was passed down through the centuries. Under its native Ming emperors (1368-1644 A.D.), China recovered from nearly a century of foreign political domination by the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.). Their authority already weakened in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries, the Ming rulers prescribed and enforced a strict code of artistic decoration for imperial artworks in ceramic, fabric, lacquer and metal. Their artistic standards were intended to glorify the perceived virtuous beneficence of the Ming government.



The art of inlaid Inlaid Mother of Pearl is a dying art. To inlay mother of pearl the artist must make an intricate and very time consuming carving of his picture before filling the carvings with the mother of pearl.

Newer art pieces use the applique method of applying the mother of pearl. The applique mother of pearl art is not as valuable as the inlaid mother of pearl designs in the Asian Antique collectible world. We highly recommend that when you find an inlaid mother of pearl art piece, you purchase it for an investment for your collection.

Mother of pearl is relatively easy to work with as it can be cut and lamented in frames, on tiles and marble bases to serve as wall hangings.

The Chinese artists would display their great skills as they placed the tesserae with their hands making sure they become sandwiched together so as to stay in place. This would create a unique mosaic pattern that had immense aesthetic appeal. Generally we find the wall hangings to have a thickness of one sixth of an inch. Once the composition is ready and placed in its position it is given a lacquer coating and polished so as to give it a glossy finish that is also durable.




Step One:


      • Soak a soft clean cloth in clear water.
        • Sometimes we add a small amount of white vinegar to our water cleaning solution.
      • Wring the cloth out so that it is slightly damp.


      • Rub the cloth over the lacquer picture. Work until you remove all of the dirt and debris. Be sure to rinse your cloth out in the water frequently.


      • Dry the object with a clean cloth. Be careful not to snag the cloth on the wood, as you might make scratches and chips worse.


      • Let the art sit for a while to finish air drying.



Step Two:

      • Add a capful of dish washing soap into a bowl of clean water. [i.e. I use an environmental friendly dishwashing soap that does not have any harsh chemicals but does have a grease remover.]


      • Soak a soft clean cloth in this soapy water and wring it out so it is slightly damp.


      • Rub the cloth over the lacquer picture. Work until you remove all of the dirt and debris. Be sure to rinse your cloth out in the soapy water frequently.


      • Immediately rinse the soapy water off the piece of art with clean water using a soft cloth.


      • Dry the object with a clean cloth. Be careful not to snag the cloth on the wood, as you might make scratches and chips worse.


      • Let the art sit for a while to finish air drying.


Repeat Step Two as needed.


Step Three:


      • Apply a small amount of light Lemon Oil Furniture Treatment to a dry, clean, soft cloth. We recommend Formby's.


      • Rub the wax over the lacquer furniture. This will restore shine that was lost when the surface was covered in dirt and debris.


      • Buff the excess oil with another clean cloth.


Step Four:


      • Apply a small amount of Bee's Wax to a dry, clean, soft cloth.


      • Rub the wax over the lacquer picture. This will restore shine that was lost when the picture was covered in dirt and debris.


    • Buff the excess wax off with another clean cloth.




  • Wipe with a water damp soft cloth.
  • For a slightly deeper clean, I use a soft cloth that is slightly dampened with a light environmental friendly cleaning soap and water mixture. Use half the strength as described above. And, I would recommend that you barely spray your soft cleaning cloth with this mixture. Keep in mind that you just want enough to be able to pick up some heavier dirt. Most of the time, plain water will work. You might want to test this first in an area that is not seen when the art is displayed. Do not spray this mixture directly onto your art piece.
  • Wipe off with a damp cloth that has been soaked in clean water.
  • Wax with Lemon Oil or Bee's Wax as described above at least once a year. We do not recommend that you use Bee's Wax on applique mother of pearl because we are afraid this will discolor the sculpture. Especially if you do not know if the applique was lacquered after it was applied to the art. More than likely, it was not.