A Private Showing at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Image Credit: The Sword Site Online Sword Museum
Image Credit: The Sword Site Online Sword Museum http://www.sword-site.com

When you build your business around an ancient, not-very-well-documented art form as I have, any opportunity to see the work of past masters is pretty exciting.  It was 2002, and I was scheduled be in Massachusetts to teach a class at MetalWerx School for Jewelry. I contacted the Museum of Fine Arts Boston to see if it would be possible to see a mokume-gane masterpiece in their collection.

The item I wanted to see was a tsuba – a sword guard used in Japanese culture to protect the hand from sliding down onto the blade. Tsubas weren’t just practical though. They were status symbols conveying information about the wealth and the social position of the owner. The one in the MFA collection is thought to have been made sometime in the late 1700s during Japan’s Edo period.

I had been looking at the picture of this tsuba, called “Cherry-Blossom Floating on a Stream,” for years, and had even used it as an example in a technical paper I had written. But I had never seen it. I contacted the curator of the Asian Arts section, and he made arrangements for me to visit.
(image of tsuba here), credited, linked to the MFA site again

Tsuba with design of cherry-blossom floating on a stream, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Tsuba with design of cherry-blossom floating on a stream, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The morning of our appointment my wife Terry and I arrived at security at 7:00 am, before the museum was open to the public. A staff member from the Asian Arts section was there to meet us. She had a glossy lime green paper bag in her hand, and I thought, “That must be her lunch. She hasn’t even had a chance to go to her office yet.”

We wandered through the museum all the way to the back, into a conference room in the Asian Arts section. Once we were in the room, the staff member reached into her lime green bag and took out a pair of white gloves for me to wear. That’s when I realized she had been there a while –  as she pulled the tuba wrapped in its protective plastic case out of the “lunch  bag”. I had my headband mounted magnifying lenses with me – something a jeweler never wants to  be without! – and I was able to examine the tsuba in very close detail. Not to get too technical, but I had always assumed that the tsuba was a solid piece of metal; imagine if you will taking several colors of Play-Doh, creating flat sheets, laying them one on top of the other, and then pushing them together until they are one solid piece with no air left in the spaces between the sheets. We do this with metal all the time in mokume-gane: we take several sheets of different colors and types of metals, lay them one on top of the other, then heat them at a high heat until they become one solid piece of metal.

But that’s not how this tsuba was made at all. It was made of layers of thin mokume-gane sheet soldered onto the solid metal core of the tuba, each face and side of the tsuba  had a layer of mokume-gane soldered to it so that the tsuba was completely clad in a skin of mokume-gane. When I looked at the sides I could see along the edges how the layers were neatly applied. This was a detail I would never have known just by looking at the picture. It gave me insight into the work of another mokume-gane artist who was doing this work more than 200 years before I was.

I was very impressed at how much skill went into making this piece. There are many different methods of creating patterns in mokume-gane. Sometimes we punch into the metal and remove the high areas to create a pattern. Sometimes we cut into the metal and forge it flat to make a pattern. Sometimes we carve into the metal and leave it in relief to make a pattern. They may sound similar to you, but each method is quite different to do, and what’s important here is that you almost never use more than one method to create one piece of mokume-gane. But the craftsman who made the tsuba used two different methods together.

If you take a look at the picture again, you’ll see that there are two different shapes. The almost heart-shaped elements are the cherry blossoms, and the swoosh shapes are the stream. To make the cherry blossoms, the artist had to punch down into the layers of metal, and to make the stream shapes the artist had to cut into the layers. Look again at how close those shapes are to one another, in many places almost on top of one another. That is extremely difficult to do.

I spent about 30 minutes examining the tsuba as closely as I could, committing it to memory and honoring the man who made it.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the history of mokume-gane isn’t very well documented. Often the artist names aren’t known – just the school of metalwork they belonged to – and the practice was handed down from master to apprentice. So an experience like this, to see a museum-quality tsuba up close, was pretty special. It’s a great memory for me.

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