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Example of Boulle work inlay using tortoiseshell in mottled red, brass and pewter
Boulle work showing the use of pewter (center) and the 'depth' given by tortoiseshell in the background. Brass inlay is on the right and left.

Inlay covers a range of techniques in sculpture and the decorative arts for inserting pieces of contrasting, often colored materials into depressions in a base object to form ornament or pictures that normally are flush with the matrix.[1] A great range of materials have been used both for the base or matrix and for the inlays inserted into it. Inlay is commonly used in the production of decorative furniture, where pieces of colored wood, precious metals or even diamonds are inserted into the surface of the carcass using various matrices including clear coats and varnishes. Lutherie inlays are frequently used as decoration and marking on musical instruments, particularly the smaller strings.

Perhaps the most famous example of furniture inlay is that of André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732) which is known as Boulle work and evolved in part from inlay produced in Italy during the late 15th century at the studiolo for Federico da Montefeltro in his Ducal Palace at Urbino, in which trompe-l'œil shelving seems to carry books, papers, curios and mathematical instruments, in eye-deceiving perspective. The similar private study made for him at Gubbio is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Inlay in wood[edit]

a tiny inlaid 'stratocaster' on a customised Fender guitar. the letters are mother of pearl and the wood is walnut burr
Mother of pearl inlay into walnut burl on a customised Fender Stratocaster.
Inlay (ivory, red sandalwood, copper) on wooden casket

In a wood matrix, inlays commonly use wood veneers, but other materials like shells, mother-of-pearl, horn or ivory may also be used. Pietre dure, or coloured stones inlaid in white or black marbles, and inlays of precious metals in a base metal matrix, are other forms of inlay. Master craftspeople who make custom knives continue a tradition of ancient techniques of inlaying precious metals; additionally, many new techniques which use contemporary tools have also been developed and utilized as well by artisans.

Intarsia inlay in wood furniture differs from marquetry, a similar technique that largely replaced it in high-style European furniture during the 17th century,[2] in that marquetry is an assembly of veneers applied over the entire surface of an object, whereas inlay consists of small pieces inserted on the bed of cut spaces in the base material, of which most remains visible.

Inlay on metals[edit]

Bronze inlaid with silver: ceremonial flask, China, Warring States period, 3rd century BC.
Arrowhead with gold inlays, Arzhan-2, 7th century BCE.

The history of inlay is very old but it is still evolving alongside new technologies and new materials being discovered today. The technique of metal in metal inlay was sophisticated and accomplished in ancient China as shown in examples of vessels decorated with precious metals, including this ding vessel (pictured) with gold and silver inlay from the Warring States period (403-221 BC).

The French cabinet maker André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) specialized in furniture using inlays or metal and either wood or tortoiseshell together, the latter acting as the background. This type of inlay is known as "Boulle work".

After learning the skill of smithing from the Navaho in 1872, the Zuni silversmiths cut small chips from crystals and gemstones, pearl shell and coral, to make inlay designs in a base of silver.

In 1990, Vivienne Westwood was inspired by Boulle work, the inlay of precious metals into or onto wood to create a collection with inlay in the manner of Boulle.[citation needed]

Sun King Diamond Coating by Jean Boulle Luxury on a Bentley Azure in Monaco[3][4][5][6][7]

In 2016, a subsidiary company of Jean-Raymond Boulle discovered and has filed a patent[8] for a new type of diamond inlay in keeping with Boulle work, subsequently produced by AkzoNobel for application on cars,[9][10] planes[11][12] and yachts.[13]

Inlay in stone[edit]

Cathedral Virgin Mary : inlays in contrasting colours of stones in pietra dura

The natives of Kerma (c. 2500 BCE – c. 1500 BCE) developed techniques for architectural inlays and glazed quartzite.[14][15] Pietra dura is the usual term in Europe for detailed inlays in contrasting colours of stones, including many semi-precious types; parchin kari is an Indian term. Pietra dura developed from the Roman opus sectile, which was typically used on a larger scale, especially in floors. Cosmatesque work on walls and floors, and smaller objects, was a medieval intermediate stage, continuing ancient opus alexandrinum.

Inlaid artifacts have come down to us from the Ancient Mayan civilization, among them, jade, mother of pearl and onyx inlaid into stone during the era that arts reached a peak during the seven centuries from 200 to 900 AD.

Inlay on fabrics[edit]

Vivienne Westwood created her Portrait Collection based on the furniture of André-Charles Boulle.[16]

Inlay in painting[edit]

Kaloust Guedel Introduced the inlay technique into contemporary painting as a philosophical concept.[17][18]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, 1975, s.v. "Inlay", "Wood-working (Special Techniques)".
  2. ^ John Fleming and Hugh Honour, The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts (1977) s.v. "Inlay".
  3. ^ "Monaco: So bling it's blinding! Can your eyes handle the 2 MILLION DIAMONDS lining this Bentley?". EBL News. Archived from the original on Mar 9, 2019. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  4. ^ "Jean Boulle Luxury Group announces a world first at the 14th Edition of Top Marques Monaco" (PDF). Jean Boulle Luxury. March 21, 2017. Retrieved Dec 12, 2017.
  5. ^ "Supercars and flying vehicles on show at Top Marques Monaco". Yahoo News Singapore. 24 April 2017.
  6. ^ "Boulle Luxury". Top Marques, Monaco. Archived from the original on Jun 30, 2017. Retrieved 19 March 2017.
  7. ^ "Jean Boulle Luxury Group's Proprietary Natural Gem Diamond Finish Technology Exhibited #Boulleluxury". Investors Africa. Archived from the original on Dec 12, 2017. Retrieved 23 March 2017.
  8. ^ "Oceanco's project Lumen shines with revolutionary Sun King® coating made from diamonds". Oceanco. Archived from the original on Dec 12, 2017. The proprietary Sun King® coating uses a patent pending process developed by Jean Boulle Luxury, a group that has a long heritage in all facets of the diamond industry. Boulle is working exclusively with partners AkzoNobel to tailor the diamond coating for automobiles, airplanes and yachts.
  9. ^ "Spectacular World Premieres at Top Marques Monaco Luxury Car Show". News 18. 25 April 2017.
  10. ^ Nargess, Banks (Mar 20, 2017). "Meet The World's First Diamond Car, The Rolls-Royce Ghost Elegance". Forbes.
  11. ^ "Jean Boulle Luxury Launches the World's First Aircraft Finished with the Sun King™ Natural Gem Diamond Coating at EBACE 2017". Business Wire. 22 May 2017.
  12. ^ "Jean Boulle: Diamond Luxury at Greater Heights". Aviation Week Network. November 11, 2017.
  13. ^ Verdon, Michael (7 November 2017). "Bedazzled Oceanco Lumen". Robb Report. Archived from the original on Nov 8, 2017.
  14. ^ W SS, 'Glazed Faience Tiles found at Kerma in the Sudan,' Museum of the Fine Arts, Vol.LX:322, Boston 1962, p. 136
  15. ^ Peter Lacovara, 'Nubian Faience', in ed. Florence D Friendman, Gifts of the Nile - Ancient Egyptian Faience, London: Thames & Hudson, 1998, 46-49)
  16. ^ "Vivienne Westwood 1990 A/W Collection : Portrait". 08245498d. Blogger. 23 March 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
  17. ^ "How A Los Angeles Artist Transforms An Ancient Chinese Technique Into Contemporary Painting, September 08, 2022".
  18. ^ "Old Inlay Technique in Contemporary Art!, September 27, 2022".

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