History of Mokume Gane

Samurai in the history of mokume

EARLY HISTORY OF MOKUME GANE

Japanese samurai swords are the first items utilizing mokume gane.  Between the late 1600s to the mid-1800s, the samurai sword transitioned from a fighting tool into a symbol of the warrior class.  The quality and decoration on the sword handle and sheath became an indicator of social status and wealth. The level of craftsmanship seen in many of these sword furnishings is unsurpassed.  Though many techniques for the decoration of these swords were developed, mokume gane is one of the most outstanding.

Mokume gane translates as: mokume=woodgrain or woodeye and gane=metal.  Belief is Denbei Shaomi (1651-1728) a master metalsmith from the Akita prefecture developed the mokume technique.  He appears to be the first person using it for the adornment of samurai swords.

The basics of mokume have not changed over the years.  Successful lamination, referred to as a billet, requires heat, pressure and an oxygen-free environment.  Billets were made of various metal combinations.  Forging and carving the billets produced uniquely patterned metal stock.  Shaomi and others used this stock to fabricate parts for the samurai sword.   Shoami created woodgrain patterns in both ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

Mokume gane has always been a very difficult process to master.  Past artisans did not have the access to today’s scientific knowledge about metal.  They had to learn to successfully fuse the metals in a traditional coal forge.  The skill required forging the laminated billet down to useable material posed a great obstacle. 

MODERN MOKUME GANE HISTORY

Hiroko Sato Pijanowski and Gene Pijanowski, metalsmiths and instructors, are credited with bringing mokume to the west.  While visiting Japan in 1970 they saw a mokume gane vessel at an exhibit.  They wanted to know more about this technique.  Norio Tamagawa, a skilled mokume craftsman, agreed to teach them.  Therefore they returned to Japan to learn from Norio.  They published papers on mokume and taught mokume workshops after they returned to the US.  Invited to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC) in 1977, they spent a weekend lecturing and giving a mokume workshop. The sharing of knowledge that weekend helped advance the technique.

During the 1970s and 1980s published articles identified a number of issues making mokume.  For instance the consistent bonding of the metals was an identified issue.  Traditional coal and gas forges provided the heat for lamination. Since these forges are not readily available to most jewelers, few people were working in mokume.  Electric kilns are more readily available but had not been successfully used for bonding metal. 

JIM’S MOKUME GANE HISTORY

By 1983 Jim Binnion was consistently laminating metal using an electric kiln. Jim, considered the pioneer in using an electric kiln in mokume, has willingly shared his knowledge.

Above all, mokume is a combination of science (fusing metals) and art (the patterns) requiring great expertise.  Due to the time and skill needed to work mokume there has always been a limited number of mokume artists.  In addition even fewer have Jim’s years of experience.  Finding his creative life’s passion Jim founded James Binnion Metal Arts in 1991.  At JBMA he works exclusively in mokume.