About Zitan


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Zitan, in its raw form

Zitan, after applying wax

Among tropical hardwoods the most prized of all is zitan, an exceptionally rare species. Zitan is so rare that it is virtually unknown in the West, and until recently was thought to be practically extinct. Its tight grain and hardness make it so dense that it sinks in water. In ancient China it was said that the dark purple color of zitan resembled the color reserved for the use of Qing dynasty. As a result, only the imperial household was allowed to use zitan in China from the 17th to the 19th century. Zitan trees grow very slowly, and zitan wood has always been in short supply. Therefore, relatively few pieces of zitan furniture exist, mostly in museums or private collections.

Zitan furniture is so rare that when items become available they command premium prices. Recently, a 216 centimeter (7 5/8 feet) long zitan painting table and accompanying painting chair produced in 2001 was sold at auction in Beijing for 440,000 Renminbi, or approximately $55,000 US. Unusual antique pieces can command prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

1) Zitan background

Zitan (Pterocarpus) is a type of Leguminosae, a member of the rosewood family. The wood originates from the tropical forests of southern China, Indochina and islands in the Indian Ocean. Zitan is an evergreen tree, and grows slowly, reaching 30 feet in height and 10 inches in diameter after 300 years. Because of its extremely slow growth, zitan is only available in limited quantities. Zitan is further divided into two categories - da-yie-tan and xiao-yie-tan. Xia-yie-tan only grows in one region of the world, India and rarely grows to be more than 10 centimeters in diameter. Objects or furniture made from ancient xia-yie-tan timber rarely appear on the international market. Da-yie-tan, though still uncommon and thought to be extinct, have slowly reappeared in tropical rain forests. The growth rings of a zitan tree are spaced so close together that they are almost impossible to distinguish without magnification. Zitan is extremely dense, and sinks in water. When new, objects made from zitan generally appear purple or reddish in color, but over time darken. Eventually the wood will become almost black, and the grain becomes virtually invisible. Although its grain is not as colorful and prominent as that of huanghuali, the subtle texture and coloring of aged zitan wood are incomparable.

2) Zitan history and furniture making

From the very ancient times, dating as early as in the 3rd century in Cui Baos Gu jin zhu (Explanation and Ancient and Modern Matters), Chinese have considered zitan the most precious wood. Perhaps because it is so rare, many more pieces were made from huanghuali than from zitan. Because of the particular scarcity of large zitan trees, large pieces of zitan furniture are exceptional treasures.

During the Ming and Qing periods, with European and American expatriates coming to China, zitan furniture first became widely exposed to the world. The export of zitan furniture started during this period. Some of the most exquisite pieces, which typically appear in international auction houses, are often pieces documented as missing in Chinese historical books. Antique zitan furniture is among the most expensive furniture in auction markets, mainly because there are so few pieces and the scarcity of the wood means that they are typically constructed to the highest standards.

3) Collecting Zitan furniture

Collecting zitan furniture has been an increasingly popular pursuit for furniture connoisseurs. Attracted by the high prices obtained for Ming and Qing period zitan furniture, some furniture makers had learned to give furniture an antique treatment and even produce counterfeit authenticity certificates. Some of these attempts are so convincing that even experienced collectors and experts are fooled. Genuine antique Ming zitan chairs command price as high as $30,000 at auction. Items represented as antiques but offered at lower prices are likely to be of more modern origin, and unlikely to be made to the same standards of joinery. With antique zitan furniture pieces so few and far between, and export of antique zitan furniture from China forbidden by law, zitan furniture made currently but with the traditions and standards of old have become increasingly valuable. Fine examples of Chinese classical furniture exude the refined aesthetics of centuries of Chinese culture, while their ingenious construction and hardwood material provide durability and maintenance-free enjoyment. Simply touching zitan objects from time to time still serves as the most common preservation mechanism, providing natural oils that protect the wood and polish the surface. As the furniture ages, its patina darkens and deepens - zitan furniture truly gets better with age.


4) Construction of Zitan

onstruction of the zitan pieces offered by Zitantique deviates little from traditional Chinese joinery. Our Chinese cabinetmakers are able to construct superbly designed and proportioned pieces without nails or screws, and with only a minimal use of dowels and glue, fully preserving the natural essence of the wood. The use of primarily mortise and tenon joints makes it possible for pieces to be easily dismantled for transport when required. This also protects the furniture from acute changes in temperature and humidity. If the furniture is rigidly constructed, changes in humidity can cause either an expansion or shrinkage in the wood and create stress on the joints that could cause permanent damage.

In order to minimize problems arising from expansion or shrinkage caused by humidity and other weather factors, our cabinetmakers begin by treating the zitan. After harvesting, the first step is to leave the zitan in a warehouse in log form. After approximately one year, the bark is removed to expose the wood and the wood is stored again in a warehouse to acclimate. Depending on the local climate in which the furniture will be used, the zitan will further undergo humidity and temperature treatment. Zitan used in Los Angeles, for example, will be processed to contain less water than that of zitan used in Florida where the weather is warmer and more humid. This process generally starts when a custom order has been received. Typically the log will be soaked in water with alkali for approximately 30 days.

Mr.Zhen, regarded as the best carving artist alive in China, at work.

View a slide show of zitan furniture making process

he next step in the process of making a zitan piece is joinery and carving. Only the most experienced craftsmen are permitted to work on zitan. Often the value of the zitan furniture is dependent as much on the artisans reputation as the quality of the wood. Carving artists are often commissioned to complete the production of zitan furniture, and usually no one other than that artist is permitted to touch the piece during the carving process. Carving is a labor and time intensive process - a pair of Ming style official high chairs would generally take about two months to complete.

he last step in the process is the surface finish. When it comes to zitan, nothing is hidden. To evoke its natural earthiness and sandy grainy patterns, zitan wood is usually sanded finished with a clear polish or lacquer, and not painted.

Find out why our source of zitan is not only of premium quality but also comes from an environmentally sound background


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