Let’s explore the history of mokume gane.
Sword Guard (Tsuba) First third 19th Century Metropolitan Museum of Art
EARLY HISTORY OF MOKUME GANE
With the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s large scale warfare between samurai armies disappeared. By the late-1600s, the samurai sword had transitioned from a fighting tool into a symbol of the warrior class. The quality and decoration on the sword handle and sheath was an indicator of social status and wealth. Of all the techniques developed for the decoration of these swords, mokume gane is one of the most interesting. Japanese metal craftsmen first used Mokume gane for adornment of samurai swords in the early 1700s.
Edo period Japan 1603-1868
The words mokume-gane (木目金) translate as: mokume=woodgrain or wood-eye; gane=metal.
During the Edo period, Shoami Denbei (1651-1727), a metal craftsman is credited with the originating this technique. He was born Suzuki Shigeyoshi, in the town of Shonai located in Dewa province. At the age of 17 he traveled to Edo (Tokyo) to train under a Shoami school craft master. Master Shoami Yoshinaga gave Shigeyoshi the craft name Denbei in 1676. Master Shoami Yoshinaga then permitted him to use the Shoami surname.
Almost nothing is known about how Shoami developed the process of mokume-gane. There is virtually no written information about the process of mokume-gane from the Edo period. Information about the process was closely held and handed down from master to apprentice.
Based on the information we have, the process was originally used to imitate Chinese lacquer work. The Japanese called these lacquer objects “Guri”, meaning circle or arch. Heavily incised ‘V’-shaped grooves adorned the lacquerware in curvilinear patterns. In alternating layers, red, black, and sometimes ochre-colored lacquer is applied to build up the surface. The carved grooves reveal colored bands from each layer in the sloping sides of the incision.
Denbei developed his process to bond non ferrous metals. His process similar to the method of steel lamination in a samurai sword. There were a few key differences to accommodate non ferrous metals.
In his early laminated metal work Shoami laminated copper and shakudo together. He then carved the laminate with a chisel to reveal the layers of the metals. This carving was like the grooves in the Guri lacquer. He used this process to make tsubas. Tsubas are the hand guards on the samurai swords. In addition he used mokume on the fittings that adorn the Samurai’s sword (tosogu).
Shoami called his technique Guri Bori which would translate as circle or arch, carve or chisel. At some point Shoami began forging the laminate after carving to flatten it to a smooth surface. The resulting patterns in the metal reveal the depth and shape of the grooves cut in the laminate. This is the same way elevation lines on a topographic map indicate mountains and valleys. Mokume gane is named for the wood grain patterns that can be achieved by cutting these patterns. Shaomi and others used this stock to fabricate parts for the samurai sword.
For more information on traditional mokume gane check out NPO Japan Mokume Gane Research Institute. You can also view pieces attributed to Denbei Shoami.
Mokume gane has always been a very difficult process to master. Past artisans did not have today’s scientific knowledge about metallurgy. Through practice they learned to successfully fuse the metals in a traditional coal forge. The skill required forging the laminated billet down to usable material posed a great obstacle.
Meji Era 1868-1912
Japan’s ruling structure underwent a major change in 1868 with the restoration of the Meiji Emperor. With the Emperor taking over ruling power from the Tokugawa Shoguns. Major changes in Japanese society occurred with this transition. One of which was the removal of the samurai as a separate class. The samurai were forbidden from wearing their swords. Their swords were their badge of office of the samurai. Mokume gane was on the verge of being lost as a working technique. The artisans who made samurai swords were largely put out of business. It is not clear if there was any direct transmission of the process from the masters into the 20th century.
Mokume Gane in the West
In the late 17th century the Dutch began importing Japanese ceramics and lacquer ware into Europe. These objects, especially the ceramics became popular and influenced the design of European ceramics. In the 1850s the end of the 220 year isolation of Japan from open trade began. Therefore a large amount of art and craft work began to flow into the West. These items became very popular. They were exotic, finely executed, and from an unknown but highly developed aesthetic tradition. Japanese art objects caught the eye of artists and designers across Europe and the United States. The ukiyo-e wood block prints were especially popular.
The Impressionist and then the Art Nouveau artists were inspired by these items. Works in every media including jewelry, metalwork, glass, furniture, textiles, graphic design and architecture show the impact of this influence. It would be hard to overstate the effect Japanese arts had on Western artists.
Early Western Metalsmiths
Along with more well known examples of Japanese art, mokume gane eventually made it into collections in the West. In the late 1800s/early 1900s the techniques and styling of the Japanese metalwork provided inspiration for metalsmiths. For instance Sir Alfred Gilbert used mokume gane in the central link of the chain of office for the Mayor of Preston, Lancashire, England.
Another western maker of mokume gane was Edward C. Moore, the preeminent American silversmith of his time. Beginning in the 1850s, Moore and his employees produced silver work for their sole client Tiffany & Co. In fact this silver work made Tiffany & Co. world famous. Moore had a wide ranging interest in design studying Asian, Roman and Moorish art and antiquities. Moore’s workshops produced many different mokume objects. These items included, but were not limited to, cigarette cases, hollow ware and flatware with mokume gane handles. In the early 20th century mokume gane fell out of fashion. As a consequence mokume gane became an almost completely lost art.
MODERN MOKUME GANE
The fundamentals of mokume have not changed over the centuries. Basically successful lamination requires heat, pressure and an oxygen-free environment. Metal billets were made using various metal combinations. Forging and carving the billets produced uniquely patterned metal stock.
In the late 1960s and 1970s a revival of interest in historical metalworking techniques emerged in art schools. At the same time in 1970 Hiroko Sato Pijanowski and Gene Pijanowski, US metalsmiths and instructors, saw a mokume gane vessel at an exhibit in Japan. Intrigued, they wanted to know more about this technique. Norio Tamagawa, a skilled Japanese mokume craftsman, agreed to teach them. In due time they returned to Japan to learn from Norio.
1970 and Beyond
After returning to the US, they started publishing papers on mokume gane. Likewise they were teaching mokume gane workshops. In 1977, they spent a weekend lecturing and giving a mokume gane workshop at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC). As a consequence this sharing of knowledge helped advance the mokume gane technique. The students at SIUC along with Hiroko and Gene’s students played a big role in developing modern mokume gane processes.
The work of Norio, Hiroko, and Gene inspired students in pursuing mokume gane. As a consequence this has lead to a world-wide revival of interest in the mokume gane process.
In 2010 Norio Tamagawa was designated as a Living National Treasure. Living National Treasures are Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties. There is a permanent exhibition of Norio’s work at the Tsubame City Industrial History Museum.
In the 1960s and 1970s one major identified issue was the inconsistency in the bonding of the metals. Traditionally, gas and coal forges provide the heat for lamination. Gas and coal forges were not readily available in most jewelers workshops. Consequently few jewelers were working in the mokume gane technique. Electric kilns, a more readily available heat source, was not producing successful laminations. Electric kilns presented the problem of containing too much. The presence of oxygen interfered with the bonding of mokume gane billets.
Jim couldn’t attend any workshops or classes. However he pursued learning mokume gane on his own. He read the papers published by Hiroko, Gene and their students. In addition he read papers from the students at SIUC. Jim’s studio doesn’t use coal/charcoal forges or gas fired kilns. However he had a temperature controlled electric kiln he skillfully used.
JIM AND HIS HISTORY WITH MOKUME GANE
Not long after he began experimenting with the electric kiln. His process included placing the mokume gane billet in a box filled with charcoal. Thus oxygen no longer interferes with the bonding process. This lead to successful lamination of the mokume gane billets in an electric kiln. In other words Jim pioneered the successful use of an electric kiln for mokume gane.
By 1983 he was successfully using an electric kiln for mokume gane lamination. Since then Jim has freely shared his findings. His information allows other metalsmiths to successfully use the electric kiln for mokume.
Finally, mokume combines science (fusing metals) and art (the patterns). Due to the required patience, time and significant expertise, there’s a limited number of modern mokume artists. Additionally, even fewer have Jim’s years of experience. Jim’s creative life passion is mokume gane. He founded James Binnion Metal Arts in 1991, working exclusively in mokume. Similarly Jim later turned his attention to Damascus Stainless Steel also offered through JBMA.