History of Mokume

Samurai in the history of mokume

EARLY HISTORY OF MOKUME GANE

Mokume gane was first used in Japanese samurai swords. By the mid-1800s, the samurai sword transitioned from a fighting tool into a symbol of the warrior class.  An indicator of social status and wealth was the quality and decoration on the sword handle and sheath. However, of all the techniques developed for the decoration of these swords, mokume gane is one of the most outstanding.

Mokume gane translates as: mokume=woodgrain or wood-eye; gane=metal.  Denbei Shaomi (1651-1728) a master metalsmith from the Akita prefecture, is believed to have developed the mokume technique.  It appears that he is the first person using mokume for the adornment of samurai swords.

The basics of mokume have not changed since those early years.  Successful lamination requires heat, pressure and an oxygen-free environment.  The resulting laminated metal is referred to as a billet, which 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 today’s scientific knowledge about metal.  Through practice they learned 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, saw a mokume gane vessel at an exhibit while visiting Japan in 1970 and 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.  Returning to the US, they published papers on mokume and taught mokume workshops.  In 1977, they spent a weekend lecturing and giving a mokume workshop at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC). The sharing of knowledge that weekend helped advance the technique.

During the 1970s and 1980s in published articles a number of issues making mokume were identified.  One major identified issue was the inconsistency in the bonding of the metals.  Gas and coal forges were being used to provide the heat for lamination. Since gas and coal forges were not readily available to most jewelers, few people were working in mokume.  Though electric kilns were more easily available they had not been successfully used for bonding metal. 

JIM’S MOKUME GANE HISTORY

Jim Binnion is considered the pioneer in using an electric kiln in mokume. By 1983 he was consistently using an electric kiln for lamination. He has freely shared his information, allowing other mokume artists to successfully use the electric kiln.

Above all, mokume is a combination of science (fusing metals) and art (the patterns) that requires great expertise.  Since working mokume requires much time and skill there has always been a limited number of mokume artists.  In addition, even fewer have Jim’s years of experience. Since finding his creative life’s passion in mokume, Jim founded James Binnion Metal Arts in 1991. He works exclusively in mokume.