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Mokume-gane

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What is Mokume-gane?

If any culture is an expert in metalworking, the Japanese are definitely among the best. Well known for their exceptional skills in crafting steel into highly efficient weapons, they are also veritable artists who can craft minute accessories of extremely ornate and detailed craftsmanship. Aside from their artisan skills, the Japanese are also experts in the creation of wonderfully alluring metal alloys that show their exceptional mastery of the art of metalworking. Among the most ornately unique is the crafting of mokume-gane (pronounced mow-kuh-mee-gun-neh), a type of metal alloy that has a strikingly unique surface pattern brought about by a special layering process. Mokume-gane, sometimes spelled mokume-game, is also referred to by other names, among them kasumi-uchi (lit. cloud metal), and itame-gane (lit. wood-grain metal)[1] . Invented by one Denbei Shoami during the latter part of the 1700s, he originally referred to it as guri bori, due to its similarity to layered laquerwork then famous at the time. The term mokume-gane was later adopted by artists following in Shoami-sensei’s footsteps, as the burl patterns found in the laminated metal alloy then resembled the patterns found in the laminated steel used for the creation of nihonto (Japanese swords). Because of its intrinsically unique patterns often resembling burls found on tree trunks, it is usually referred in the west as burl metal.

Traditionally used to create tiny ornaments and fittings for Japanese swords and other personal accoutrements, mokume-gane is usually composed of several layers of varying metals, usually softer ones such as gold, copper, silver, and iron[2] . Such materials are known for their ability to create liquid phase diffusion bonds, a characteristic in which metals are able to fuse with one another without fully melting together, thus retaining their specific characteristics.

The original process of mokume-gane was a manual one that involved fusing sheets of metal (the usual recipe for high end mokume-gane were gold, copper, silver, and iron) which were stacked together and slowly heated to form a solid billet which was then forged and carved into thin sheets or into objets d’art such as amulets, sword fittings, and mountable talismans worn as jewelry. The traditional method of creating mokume-gane was a labor-intensive process that took years to perfect, with the best examples being the magnum opus of some of the best metalworkers of the age[3] .

After the melding and forging of the metal, it could be colored or aged (if so desired) using a special solution known as rokusho – a concoction of copper acetate, calcium carbonate, and lye. The rokusho would purposely patinate or tarnish the metals (copper, iron, and silver) which would result in interesting colors that played on a vast spectrum, creating a unique effect that rendered each piece of mokume-gane inimitably unique in and of itself, while being offset by a black background created by the rokusho solution.

Erroneously referred to as Japanese damascene, it is by no means similar to the damascene as strictly classified in the west. The practice of mokume-gane was originally limited to Japan, although modern artists have taken on the practice, creating wonderfully individual pieces through a slight modification of the traditional laminating process. Nowadays, with the presence of modern technology, more metals can be incorporated into a typical mokume-gane billet, with titanium, platinum, and an assortment of harder metals now being a staple in the craft – a far cry from the limitations of traditional artistry[4] . Nowadays, modern examples of mokume-gane are now fused with the help of machinery, while the working itself is still mostly done by hand. Depending on the materials used in the creation of a piece, some mokume-gane can be a tad affordable, while others are very expensive. Traditionally made mokume-gane, as well as antique pieces is near priceless. Due to its unique pattern and individual overall look (no two pieces are ever alike), it has become an artisan medium employed in modern jewelry.



Mokume-gane - References:

[1] http://www.silversmithing.com/1mokume.htm
[2] http://www.ka-gold-jewelry.com/p-articles/mokume.php
[3] http://www.mokume-gane.com/index.php?page=the_mokumegane_story
[4] http://www.ganoksin.com/borisat/nenam/manufacturing-mokume-gane.htm

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