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 1600’s 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.  As an indicator of social status and wealth the quality and decoration on the sword handle and sheath was visible for all to see. Of all the techniques developed for the decoration of these swords, mokume gane is one of the most interesting. Mokume gane was first used in adornment of Japanese samurai swords in the early 1700’s.

Edo period Japan 1603-1868

The words mokume-gane (木目金) translate as: mokume=woodgrain or wood-eye; gane=metal. 

The origin of this technique is attributed to the Edo period metal craftsman, Shoami Denbei (1651-1727). 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. In 1676 Shigeyoshi was given his craft name of Denbei by master Shoami Yoshinaga and was then permitted to use the Shoami surname.

Almost nothing is known about how Shoami developed the process of mokume-gane in fact there is virtually no written information about the process of mokume-gane from the Edo period. Information about the process was closely held and was handed down from master to apprentice. What information we do have suggests that the process was originally used to emulate lacquer work imported from China. These lacquer objects were called Guri by the Japanese which means circle or arch, the lacquerware was heavily incised with “V” shaped grooves in curvilinear patterns. The lacquer is built up in alternating layers of red black and sometimes ochre colored lacquer. 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 in a somewhat similar fashion to the method of steel lamination in a samurai sword but with a few key differences to accommodate non ferrous metals.
In his early laminated metal work he laminated copper and shakudo which he then carved with a chisel to reveal the layers of the laminate just like the grooves in the Guri lacquer. He used this process to make tsuba which are the hand guards on the samurai swords as well as other pieces of tosogu, which are the fittings that adorn the Samurai’s sword. 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 in the same way elevation lines on a topographic map indicate mountains and valleys. These patterns could be cut to resemble highly figured or relatively simple wood grain patterns hence the name mokume gane.

Tsuba in the Guri Bori style Unknown maker 1700-1900

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.

For more information on traditional mokume gane and to see pieces attributed to Denbei Shoami check out NPO Japan Mokume Gane Research Institute

A charcoal forge or hodo similar to one Denbei Shoami would have used to fire his mokume-gane

Mokume gane has always been a very difficult process to master.  Past artisans did not have today’s scientific knowledge about metallurgy.  Though 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 to those wanting to practice the technique.

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. A part of this was that the wearing of the samurai swords which were in effect the badge of office of the samurai was banned. This pretty much put the artisans who made samurai swords out of business and mokume gane as a working technique was almost lost. It is not clear if there was any direct transmission of the process from master to apprentice continuing into the 20th century.

Mokume Gane in the West

Japonisme
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. However in the 1850s with the end of the 220 year isolation of Japan from open trade a large amount of art and craft work began to flow into the West. These items became very popular as they were exotic, finely executed, and from an unknown but highly developed aesthetic tradition. Japanese art objects, especially the ukiyo-e wood block prints caught the eye of artists and designers across Europe and the United States. The Impressionist and later the Art Nouveau artists, along with designers in all the decorative arts were inspired by these items. Works in every media jewelry, metalwork, glass, furniture, textiles, graphic design and architecture all show the impact of this influence. It would be hard to overstate the impact Japanese arts had on Western artists.
Along with the more well known examples of Japanese art mokume gane works also made it into collections in the West. The unique techniques and styling of the Japanese metalwork provided inspiration for more than a few metalsmiths in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One was Sir Alfred Gilbert, who 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 1850’s Moore and his employees produced the silver work that made their sole client Tiffany & Co world famous. Moore had a wide ranging interest in design and studied Asian, Roman and Moorish art and antiquities. A wide range of mokume gane objects were produced in Moore’s workshops, included cigarette cases, hollow ware and flatware with mokume gane handles. However this style of work fell out of fashion in the early 20th century and mokume gane for all intents and purposes became a lost art.

Ice cream spoon made by Tiffany & Co Late 19th to Early 20th Century

MODERN MOKUME GANE

1970 and Beyond

In the late 1960s and into the 70’s there was a revival of interest in historical metalworking techniques in art schools. 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.  They returned to Japan to learn from Norio.  Upon returning to the US, they published papers on mokume gane and taught mokume gane workshops.  In 1977, they spent a weekend lecturing and giving a mokume gane workshop at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC). The sharing of knowledge that weekend helped advance the technique and 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, Gene and all the students they have inspired has lead to a revival of interest all around the world in the mokume gane process.

In 2010 Norio Tamagawa was honored by being selected as one of the Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties more commonly known as a Living National Treasure. There is a permanent exhibition of Norio’s work at the Tsubame City Industrial History Museum

JIM’S MOKUME GANE HISTORY

Norio Tamagawa, Hiroko Sato Pijanowski and Jim at Norio’s house March 2018

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 in most jewelers workshops, few people were working in mokume gane as a jewelry technique.  Electric kilns were more readily available as a heat source but they initially presented problems of too much oxygen being present and it interfering with the bonding of mokume gane billets. 

Jim was interested in learning mokume gane but was unable to attend any workshops or classes in the process. He read the papers that Hiroko, Gene and their students published along with papers from the students at SIUC. Jim’s studio was not set up to use coal/charcoal forges or gas fired kilns but he had a temperature controlled electric kiln. He began experimenting with the electric kiln and eventually developed a process of enclosing the mokume gane billet in a box filled with charcoal to prevent oxygen from interfering with the bonding process. This lead to successful lamination of the mokume gane billets and the beginning of Jim’s career as a mokume gane maker.

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

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.