Table of contents
Many of the reference books I list in the Books Section, give some form of historical account of the origins of Marquetry.
Quotation from Marquetry & Inlay by Alan & Gill Bridgewater.
Marquetry and inlay were inspired by the ancient craft of intarsia - the making of decorative and pictorial mosaics by the inlaying of precious and exotic material into or onto a groundwork of solid wood.
Three thousand or so years ago, the Egyptians decorated much of their woodwork with inlay. In fact, in the tomb of the Pharaoh King Tutankhamon, the throne, chest, coffers, and nearly all the furniture are literally covered with inlay, Precious stones, miniature glazed tiles, and little brickets of wood, gold and ivory wonderfully embellished items of special prestigious and ceremonial importance.
In the Orient--in Persia, India, China and Japan--inlay workers created all sorts of decorative delights, from complex wood parquetry designs set into floors to wood mosaics on walls and furniture, to small inlay picture designs on boxes, caskets, tombs, reliquaries and ceremonial regalia. All uniquely beautiful, and all fabulously expensive in terms of time, labor and cost of materials. Through the centuries, in ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, Persia, eighth-century Japan, and sixteenth-century Italy and Germany, rich patrons employed inlay craftsmen to create beautiful works of art. The process was both expensive and painstaking because, traditionally, the craft involved many long steps: importing rare and exotic hardwoods; slowly carving, lowering, and trenching a groundwork; sawing and slicing the small amount of difficult-to-cut, expensive hardwood into 1/4-1/2-inch-thick tiles; fitting and setting the mosaic tiles into a bed of glue or mastic, one piece at a time; and then finally scraping, rubbing down, waxing, and burnishing the inlay surface.
And so it might have continued, had not an anonymous German clockmaker invented the jigsaw blade near the end of the sixteenth century. The blade made possible new mass-production methods. No longer was the craft slow and prohibitively expensive, nor was it greedily gobbling up vast amounts of rare exotic woods. With the revolutionary fast-moving, frame-held saw blade, it was possible to double, triple and even quadruple production simply by repeatedly cutting the expensive slab woods into thinner and thinner sheets. Better still, it was also possible to sandwich stacks of veneers together and cut six or so designs all at once.
As they say, the rest is all history. From the seventeenth century right through to the end of the nineteenth century, tools improved, and techniques became increasingly swifter and more refined. By the end of the nineteenth century, thin inlay veneer, or marquetry as it had now come to be called, was an extremely popular and accessible form of furniture decoration. The early twentieth century heralded a revival of interest in special high-quality, exotic wood inlays and marquetries, with designers, hobbyists and artists creating pieces considered works of art in their own right.
I sometimes look at my collection of veneers and miserly marvel at the colors, the uniquely beautiful grain patterns, and the rich aromas. I get a great deal of pleasure from handling the precious woods and reading off the wonderfully evocative names and descriptions: Rich, brown ebony from the Celebes Islands, blood-red padouk from the Andaman Islands, red pau rosa from West Africa, primavera from Central America, satinwood, teak, tola and zebrano--all pure poetry. Each name evokes storybook pictures of teak forests, Burmese elephants hauling trees, huge river rafts of logs, and jungle saw mills.