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Satsuma: the timeless elegance of Japanese ceramics

Satsuma ceramics, renowned worldwide for their beauty and refinement, represent one of Japan’s artistic treasures. These ceramics take their name from the Satsuma region, located in Kagoshima Prefecture in the south of the country, where they originated. Since ancient times, Satsuma ceramics have been admired for their craftsmanship and unique aesthetic, becoming a valuable and distinctive art form that has stood the test of time unscathed. Indeed, it is an artistic heritage that continues to this day to enchant enthusiasts and collectors around the world. 

In this article we will guide you to discover the origins, style, techniques and great value of Satsuma ceramics.  

A fascinating finely decorated Satsuma vase signed Ryozan

History and origin of Satsuma pottery

It was Korean potters, fascinated by the Japanese for their extraordinary skills, who established the first kilns in the 16th century. During this period and until the early 1800s, objects mainly for everyday use were made. They were made of clay covered with a simple glaze layer known as Ko-Satsuma.

Over the years, Satsuma pottery underwent a significant transformation, acquiring a unique personality and style. More than 150 years ago, between the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period, the production of Satsuma ceramics changed dramatically. A new style of ceramics, known as Kyoto Satsuma (or Kyō Satsuma), was first developed.

Satsumas produced during this period became famous for their vibrant colors, meticulous technique, and richly detailed painting.

It can be said that the Meiji period can be considered the “golden age” of artistic production of Satsuma ceramics.

Distinctive style and characteristics of Satsuma ceramics

What makes Satsuma ceramics so special is their exquisite workmanship and detailed design. Their production requires high-level craftsmanship skills and great attention to detail. Artisans devote years to perfecting their craftsmanship techniques and understanding the subtle nuances of glazes and colors. Each piece is handcrafted, carefully shaped and sculpted, and then fired at high temperatures to create a durable and brilliant finish.

They are characterized by a fine cràclure that forms at the end of firing that is visible to the naked eye, then glazed or glazed as the artist chooses. 

Detail of the base of a Koro Satsuma where the typical Satsuma craclure can be seen

This is precisely the most obvious difference that distinguishes Satsuma from other Japanese manufactures such as Kutani or Imari, since it is earthenware and not porcelain.

The extraordinary vividness and beauty of Satsuma ceramics comes from the use of intensely vivid colors on a usually ivory background. The motifs are applied with great precision using a glaze painting technique, often enhanced by shimmering gold details.

The decorative motifs are varied. They range from naturalistic depictions of flowers, birds, and landscapes to traditional scenes from Japanese literature or mythology. 

Detail of an excellent Satsuma vase signed Kinkozan

The special Gosu blue technique 

Special mention goes to Satsuma Gosu blue, called “Imperial” in the West. This variety is distinguished by its thick, dense glaze, which can feature shades of dark blue, green, and red, combined with classic shimmering gold. It often depicts stylized floral subjects or animals from mythology. Gosu Blue Satsumas were produced in very limited quantities in Kyoto during the mid-19th century.

Koro shaped Gosu Blue cricket holder

Collecting and the value of Satsuma ceramics

Given all this, it seems clear that Satsuma ceramics are highly prized by collectors all over the world. Their rare beauty, thousand-year history and cultural importance make them objects of great artistic and historical value. The market for Satsuma ceramics is dynamic and ever-changing, with valuable pieces that can fetch considerable prices. 

Collecting Satsuma ceramics is a form of investment that allows one to appreciate not only the aesthetics of the works, but also the cultural heritage they represent. It is therefore important to know how to recognize them and to be able to distinguish a quality Satsuma ceramic from one created for a mass market.

There are several factors that enable us to identify a quality Satsuma ceramic.

  • Details and precision of decoration are a peculiarity in high-quality Satsuma ceramics. Designs should be finely executed, with sharp lines and vibrant colors. Paying attention to the details of the paintings, such as the rendering of flowers, landscapes, or characters, can help assess the quality of the work. 
  • Gold is the unifying feature of Satsuma ceramics. In those of excellent quality, the percentage of gold used is very high. As a result, the gilding will be more durable and the luster decidedly superior.
  • Rich, bright colors that are well applied and uniform, thus without smudging or inaccuracies, are a sign of a high quality object. 
  • Glazes that only some ceramics exhibit. The quality and precision of these additional features can affect the overall evaluation of the work. 
  • Form is a crucial element in the artwork collection. Works with unusual and peculiar shapes are highly sought after and were usually created by artists with exceptional skill. In contrast, forms that are too simple are often associated with inferior quality.
  • The signature may be found on the bottom or surface of the ceramic. Works signed by renowned artists are generally considered more valuable and desirable. If the mark is written in English or reads “Made in Japan,” it is a very late object. 
  • Condition and condition of the pottery are items to be examined carefully. Restoration inevitably results in a decline in value. Satsuma ceramics in excellent condition and without damage are considered more valuable. In fact, the difference in value between a pottery with defects and one in excellent condition can be considerable.

Japan’s most famous artists

There are not many artists who have devoted themselves to the production of Satsuma ceramics. Some of them are: Seikozan, Hankinzan, Nakamura Baikei, Sozan, Meizan, Shozan, Kaizan, Shizan, Shoko Takebe, and Taizan.

Some of the more well-known names include Yabu Meizan, Kinkozan, and Ryozan.

Yabu Meizan (1853-1934) is considered one of Satsuma’s greatest ceramic artists. He was renowned for his ability to execute finely detailed and complex paintings on Satsuma ceramics. His works often feature deep landscape and traditional Japanese scenes and are generally no larger than 15-20 cm.

Kinkozan’s works are characterized by meticulous attention to detail and intricate patterns. 

Finally, Ryozan (1836-1902) is known for his skill in making Satsuma ceramics with high-quality glazes. His works range from vases and plates to boxes and statues. Ryozan’s ceramics are admired for their refinement, skillful use of color, and precision of decoration.

Our recommendations

Recently, we conducted a statistical analysis regarding Satsuma ceramics and that, in general, can be applied to all works available in the market. This investigation revealed a surprising finding: only a small percentage of the items on the market can boast of authentic and noteworthy value. This means that untangling the jungle of the market is not an easy task, especially for beginners, but not only.

Even the experienced collector, accustomed to buying over time, can benefit not only from his or her own knowledge, but also from the support of an antiques dealer or expert in the field. 

However, for more informed research we also recommend visiting exhibitions and museums dedicated to Japanese art.

In addition, books featuring works of unquestionable quality can help one understand how far an artist’s skill can go. Although there is unfortunately not a large production of publications related to Satsuma ceramics, we recommend an interesting one. Louis Lawrence’s “Satsuma: Masterpieces from the World’s Important Collections.”

Satsuma ceramics are one of Japan’s most beloved and respected art forms. Their refinement, craftsmanship and inherent beauty have given them a special place in Japanese history and culture. The timeless elegance of Satsuma ceramics is a tribute to the ingenuity and creativity of the artisans who created them. Their refinement continues to inspire lovers of art and cultural treasures around the world.

For our part, we hope to have been helpful to all those who have a desire to learn more about this subject. But also to have, with this contribution of ours, pleasantly engaged the knowledgeable collector as well.