The Use of Precious Metals in Mokume Gane
With the shift in the use of Mokume Gane which was made from gold, silver, copper, copper alloys in the Edo Period, to current times when it is used for decorative purposes, it was essential to transition to precious metals such as various colors of gold and platinum. This is because of the disadvantage in the loss through friction on copper alloys of the colors that are achieved with thin films that are applied to the surface using boiled color patination.
Mokumeganeya representative director TAKAHASHI Masaki obtained his doctoral degree on the subject of Mokume Gane. We will introduce here an outline of the portion of his doctoral thesis, “The Possibilities of Decorative Expressions in Mokume Gane Jewelry”, on the possibilities of precious metals in Mokume Gane.
In the second chapter of this PhD thesis, these decorative effects were verified by manufacturing color samples in which precious metals were substituted in the pattern on an Edo period tsuba that he had already reproduced. As a result, the first thing that became clear was the possibility of a new technology to naturally blend the hues of different metals in Mokume Gane. The colors of the precious metals that are frequently used in jewelry are gradations of gold, silver and copper. Mokume Gane could in fact bring out intermediate nuances.
The next point which was addressed is the renewed perception of the depth of Mokume Gane’s essence, which is a construction of patterns by interweaving materials. In producing the color samples by substituting precious metals, the combinations made it so that where the shades of adjoining precious metals were close, it was not possible to see the differences in pattern with the naked eye. Therefore, a method was developed to better define the color boundaries and enhance the decorative effect through a very slight corrosion of the metals. By enhancing definition through corrosion of Mokume Gane which is created by twisting, carving and then flattening the metal materials, a construction can be achieved that creates a pattern in which the interwoven metals support and bring out one another, creating a new outlet for the energy that is inside.
The slight difference in elevation brought about by the corrosion does not just have the effect of defining the shades in color more clearly, but also shows the undulations of the boundaries according to the order of the layering, which is a clear record of the time involved in the manufacturing process.
One could say that the patterns in the Mokume Gane jewelry made with precious metals represent both the intricate colors and also the time it has taken to achieve them.
Rôgin/Oborogin and Karasugane/Ukin
These are names of metals from Japan’s past. They refer to colors. They achieve something similar to the delicate nuances of color found in nature. They speak of the refinement of the Japanese who found so many different names for them.
During the Edo period, in addition to gold, silver and copper, mokume-gane was made using uniquely Japanese alloys such as shibuichi and shakudo. Patterns could be created thanks to the differences in color of these metals. Since, in their raw state, these copper alloys look no different from copper, it is hard to see the difference when they are layered with silver and copper and twisted or carved. It is with the final traditional technique known as boiled color patination that the color changes and that the intricate mokume-gane pattern becomes visible.
“Oborogin” is the name given to shibuichi after the boiled color patination. The term “Oboro” comes from “Oborotsukiyo” which refers to spring nights with a hazy moon, resonating with the actual color. The name suggests a layer of mist upon a brightly shining moon. The alloy consists of one part silver to three parts copper. “Karasugane” is another name for shakudo. The name comes from the resemblance to a crow’s feathers when wet. It is an alloy of copper and gold, with the proportion of gold varying from 1% to 5%.
Boiled color patination is a method whereby copper sulphate and Rokusho pigment are mixed with water, brought to the boil, and then boiled until the color is achieved.
When the boiling process is carried out, the surface must be polished so that there is not even the slightest irregularity nor any oxide film. To achieve this, the alloy is dipped, just before boiling, in water mixed with finely grated daikon radish, a method that has been transmitted unchanged from olden times.
The patinated alloy that has changed color has a thin film on its surface. You could say that it is a rusted surface. If this thin film is rubbed too hard, it will gradually disappear, so it is covered with either wax or a thin film of transparent paint. This is what makes it a challenge to use in modern jewelry.
At Mokumeganeya, we have been working on developing our technology in using gold and platinum, rather than copper alloys, in order to enhance the attractiveness of mokume-gane in modern times. Since the pattern is produced by the colors of the actual metals that are used, our aim is for mokume-gane patterns that you will be able to enjoy each and every day as you wear the pieces. We are making further efforts with regard to the layering of these precious metals, and that is what we will be discussing in our next chapter.
In the previous chapter, we introduced Shôami Denbei who created the concept of mokume-gane, and his gorgeous mokume-gane work. In this chapter, we would like to tell you about “guribori” which is linked to the advent of mokume-nane techniques.
It is said that mokume-gane techniques originated in the early Edo period, in the guribori tsuba created by Shôami Denbei. In guribori, different colored metals such as copper and shakudo are stacked alternately and fused, then arabesques and spirals are carved in so that the metal layering design is visible in the carved parts. There is a theory that this may have been influenced by the folk patterns of the Ainu, but it is generally believed that the roots lie in the Chinese lacquered “Guri.” This chapter will be devoted to “guri.”
Tsuba by Akita Shôami Signed Shôami Denbei residing in Dewa, Akita Middle of the Edo period Shakudo
Photographed fom Tsuba Taikan by Kawaguchi Wataru (Tôken Shunju)
The technique of applying the sap of the Japanese sumac tree to utensils is known as lacquering. Guri is one of the ancient lacquer techniques of China. Nowadays, most people are familiar with the likes of Wajima lacquer or Tsugaru lacquer, with tableware or gold makie works of art. Coating wooden utensils with lacquer makes them resistant and long-lasting. In ancient China, it was common to coat multiple layers of lacquer onto wooden items to achieve considerable thickness, and then carve this into three-dimensional patterns. These swirling patterns that looked like continuous warabi bracken were called guri. The arabesque patterns which had spread around the world since ancient times were further refined with abstract heart or swirl patterns appearing. Through the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, this Chinese lacquer came to Japan at the same time as Zen Buddhism, and was prized for use in tea utensils or incense containers. In Japan, the swirl patterns were called “kurikuri” which is how it came to be known as guri. The sound came to depict the pattern.
Guri wreath patterned tea bowl stand Song Dynasty Lacquer Property of Toyo National Museum ©Tokyo National Museum
Subsequently, this was imitated in Japan to carve designs on wood and apply lacquer to make Buddhist altar objects, becoming the origin of Kamakura-bori. There are masterpieces among Japanese made lacquer inro from the latter part of the Edo period believed to be of similar origin, showing us that such patterns circulated widely at the time.
Inro and netsuke Latter part of the Edo period lacquer Property of Mokumegane Research Institute
And going further back in China, it is said that the technique known as ”Saihi” which was mostly seen during the Southern Song dynasty is at the origin of guri. In this, yellow and orange coatings were applied alternately, with the final surface layer being black, and, as geometrical patterns were carved out, delicate layers of colored lacquer became visible. There are only a very few pieces still in existence. Both the Tokyo National Museum and the University Art Museum of the Tokyo University of the Arts have several pieces in their collections.
So, please take another look at the guribori tsuba made by Shôami Denbei. There is no doubt that the swirly pattern carved into the metal layers resembles the guri technique. And the reason why Denbei’s guribori is called the ancestor of mokume-gane lies in the similarity of the technique in carving down the layered metal. The greatest characteristic of the guribori of the Akita Shôami school, which started with Shôami Denbei, is its full three-dimensional effect. The carving is bold but there is refinement within the scale and massiveness giving it the characteristics of being an ancestor. It is also well-rounded, giving an impression of the same level of outstanding technique seen in the Southern Song dynasty incense containers
Guribori incense container Meiji period lacquer Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
Shôami Denbei further developed this guribori technique and created the mokume-gane technique that produces the gorgeous patterns such as those we described in the previous issue. He was able to produce intricate patterns by carving and twisting the layered metal billets and then pounding them down with a hammer.
Further advances in guribori technique were not immediate and happened in the latter part of the Edo period. Takahashi Masatsugu who was a craftsman specializing in sword tsuba was active during the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1829), and left elegant and refined guribori pieces for posterity. Subsequently Masatsugu’s adopted son, Takahashi Okitsugu, specialized in guribori and mokume-gane. Looking at the magnificent existing sword fittings by the Takahashi school, starting with Masatsugu and Okitsugu, it seems appropriate to say that this was the pinnacle of guribori and mokume-gane techniques.
Guribori tsuba Signed: Takahashi Masatsugu (hanaoshi) Middle of Edo period Silver, copper, shakudo Property of Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
Guribori tsuba Signed: Takahashi Okitsugu (hanaoshi) Middle of Edo period Copper, shakudo Property of Japan Mokumegane Research Institute
At Mokumeganeya, we have adapted the technique of guribori, with its long history, to modern times, and are putting our all into producing wedding rings that our customers can wear forever.
Reference documents: Tokyo National Museum Masterpiece Gallery
In the last chapter, we told you about Shôami Denbei who made the kozuka which is acknowledged to be the oldest and most beautiful example of Mokume-Gane. The CEO of Mokumeganeya, Takahashi Masaki, made a reproduction study of this Mokume Gane kozuka signed Shôami Denbei, made of gold, silver and other metals, and an Akita Prefecture designated cultural property, in 2003 in order to elucidate this outstanding design that was particular to Shôami Denbei and not seen elsewhere. We will give an overview of this project here. This represented the first such study of the design techniques of Edo period Mokume Gane. Below is an excerpt from the study thesis.
The first step was to enlarge a photograph of the Kozuka knife and trace the pattern in order to find out how many types of metal has been used and how they had been stacked. Within the detail of the pattern, the intricate changes in the materials, reminiscent of the fine contour lines on a map, are laid out within a framework of as little as one millimeter square. The technique of Mokume Gane consists of first carving down a metal stack, or billet, using tools such as a chisel, and then creating the pattern by using a hammer to forge it flat. By using this process, the order of the metal layers remains the same whichever portion is extracted to reveal the pattern on the surface.
It became clear, as a result of the observation, that the order of the layers was reversed at the boundary between the A portion and the B (copper) portion of the pattern. Comparing the trace drawing to the contour lines showed that this was not a simple reversal in the order of the layers, and that the metal layer before and after the displayed “copper” was the same layer. This led to the thinking that, before creating the pattern, some sort of particular process was used so as to reverse the order of the layering in part. Further observation of the C portion confirmed that the layers were reversed with (c) as a boundary and that, furthermore, these were in the same order of layering as the A portion.
It can be assumed from these results that the reversal in the layers is something that happened with regularity. A more detailed analysis of the close-up clearly showed that the reversal in the layers occured alternately as original Mokume Gane patterns in segments of the streamline shape.
The order of the layering was determined to be the 16 layers of copper, Shakudô, gold, copper, Shakudô, silver, copper, Shakudô, gold, copper, Shakudô, silver, copper, Shakudô, gold, copper. It can be supposed that these metals were layered, forged into a billet, and then underwent a twisting process.
The results of the analysis show that after fours counts of twisting of the surface, the back, the surface and the back, the billet was then flattened using a hammer. It is through this process that the twisted pattern that is at the origin of Shoami Denbei’s unique Mokume Gane pattern came up to the surface.
The actual reproduction study was done based on the results of this analysis.
1. Following verification by tracing the pattern, 6 sheets of copper, 5 sheets of Shakudô, 3 sheets of gold and 2 sheets of silver were prepared.
2. The sheets were stacked in order and heated, becoming fused. They were then hammered down in order to produce a rectangular billet.
3. The billet was then slowly and carefully twisted four times, surface, back, surface, back, while paying attention to the order of the layering.
4.The billet that had undergone twist processing was then repeatedly carved and hammered down until it was flat, and the pattern was revealed.
The end of the reproduction study
The thing that very much came to mind at the end of the reproduction study is that these unique patterns are at the root of the original Mokume Gane technique. The point is that this way of revealing patterns goes beyond “something that is produced randomly.” It is the solid manifestation of the culmination of a very refined technique by Shoami Denbei who turned the random into the natural.
Even the patterns that are graceful and fresh at first glance require in their making minute attention and careful work. The reproduction made it possible to experience how the details of the idea that started as a glimmer in the creator’s eye became feasible as a pattern. The insatiable quest of Shoami Denbei for the possibilities in Mokume Gane techniques was clearly felt.
Mokume Gane evolved as one of the techiques in manufacturing tsuba for swords. At Mokumeganeya, we also produce tsuba jewelry that is inspired from the shape of these original sword tsuba. Particularly popular is the tsuba jewelry inspired by the gorgeous ornamentation on the tsuba from the Shôami school.
This chapter will focus on those tsuba as a way of introducing Shôami Denbei, the creator of Mokume Gane, as well as Akita Mokume Gane.
Mokume-Gane Tsuba – unsigned – early Edo period – Shakudo, copper, gold and silver
The tsuba shown here features a four-sided shape known as “Yotsu Mokko” which was quite popular as a tsuba shape during the Edo period. It is reminiscent of a cross –section of a melon with its myriad seeds, it was used as an auspicious shape tied to bountiful progeny. The Mokume Gane pattern, made of gold, silver, shakudo and copper is outstanding in its design. The color combination, coupled with the gold brim, is gorgeous, making it an unusual piece in Mokume Gane where the effect is generally more sober. The design which combines round Mokume Gane spheres within the stripe pattern was achieved using the same methods as for the kozuka (handle fitting for the small sword worn along with the large sword) which is said to be the oldest example of Mokume Gane.
Akita Prefecture designated cultural property – Kozuka – Gold, silver, shakudo, pure copper – signed Shôami Denbei residing in Dewa, Akita
Replica item by Takahashi Masaki
Shôami Denbei (Suzuki Denbei Jukichi 1651-1728) who made this kozuka was the person who invented the concept of Mokume Gane.
The origin of the name “Shôami” lies in the school’s origins in a famous Kyoto family of metalworkers which spread all over Japan during the Edo period. Denbei apprenticed with Shôami in Edo and, after finishing his training, he was employed by the Satake Clan in Akita where he produced numerous outstanding sword fittings. He then founded the Akita Shôami school. Even though the Shôami school expanded widely to Shônai, Aizu, Edo, Bizen, Iyo and Awa, it was the Akita school which prospered most with its new techniques of guribori and Mokume Gane.
Producing the tsuba that is shown here required a pretty large metal base, and the technique to fuse the four different layers of metal without them melting into one another required great skill. Going on to combine three Mokume Gane billets was also a challenging technique yielding an even more intricate pattern. This particular type of gorgeous Mokume Gane that uses a base combining gold, silver, shakudo and copper is categorized as “Akita Mokume Gane” and there are no other cases of a similarly skillful technique and refined elegance.
This tsuba is also featured on the Mokumeganeya website.
From the end of the Bakufu period into the Meiji Era, the foreigners who visited Japan were fascinated by Japanese art and brought many objects back home with them. Many of these were later donated to museums. Mokume Gane pieces are also in the collections of many museums worldwide. Chapters 10 to 13 featured the items in the collections of the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum, the museum of the University of Oxford.
This chapter will feature the Mokume Gane pieces in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Mokumeganeya has published “ Textbook of Mokume Gane” through its NPO, the Japan Mokumegane Research Institute.
The publication is a textbook which systematically addresses the history, culture, works, and techniques of the traditional art of Mokume Gane. Many pieces that are featured in the collections of museums overseas, such as the V&A, are included. The opportunity on this visit to see these pieces with our own eyes was a great joy!
The V&A was founded in 1851, the same year as the Great Exhibition was held in London, and the museum opened its doors in 1852, as a museum of decorative arts and design, featuring a collection spanning 5000 years of human creativity from all over the world. Its current palatial home was completed in 1909.
The main entrance of the V&A
The museum’s exhibits cover more than 140 rooms, and it is considered to be world-leading in the quality of its collections and their depth. Just like the British Museum, entrance is free. The inner courtyard which is surrounded by majestic buildings offers a space for relaxation where children can enjoy water games.
The inner courtyard
The design of the exhibition spaces differs according to the contents. Silver items, for example, are displayed in a palace-like setting.
The silver exhibit
In addition to the exhibition spaces in which gorgeous ornaments from Europe’s medieval period are elegantly displayed, the display areas themselves are to be enjoyed.
In the “Japan” exhibition space, the design takes into account Japanese architecture, with the display cases featuring Japanese “Ranma” transoms.
Front view of Japan room
Inside view of Japan room
The lighting in the Japan room is particularly soft, partly to preserve the pieces on show, but also perhaps to show how Japan prizes the beauty of shadows. The exhibit includes displays ranging from the Edo period and Meiji era to modern times, presented in various categories including “tea ceremony”, “lacquer” and “ornaments”
Japan room – 1
There were many tsuba and swords on display in the “Samurai” corner
On taking a closer look, there it was, somewhere in the middle! The guribori tsuba signed Takahashi Okitsugu! And there was also a Mokume Gane tsuba.
Guribori tsuba close-up
We have a similar tsuba to the guribori tsuba made by Okitsugu, but in Mokume Gane, in the collection of the Mokumegane Research Institute. Guribori was the technique in which the tsuba makers of the Takahashi School were most skilled. Among them, the carvings by Okitsugu combined both elegance and substance to achieve outstanding solidity. As was shown through the Yoshino River Tsuba in the first chapter of this “Discovering Mokumegane” series, Mokume Gane is not just a technique for making patterns, but was taken to the level of representing images by Okitsugu. One can confidently say that he was also unsurpassed as an expert in crafting guribori.
n the Mokume Gane tsuba, a simple iron substrate has been inlayed with Mokume Gane. Aside from the hitsuana which is the hole through which the Kôgai (the tool that was used for fixing hair) was passed, there is Mokume Gane inlay of a gourd and another, indistinct, long shape. These scattered little accents find a balance in the midst of the large tsuba. With the reverse side of this fun shape featuring a very intricate and challenging Mokume Gane pattern, this item conveys the sense of humor of the craftsmen of the time.
In addition the set of ornaments on the black scabbards for large and small swords that were displayed in the middle, with deep guribori fuchi and kurigata, were doubtless on display to show the quality of the design brought out on the elegantly simple black lacquer finish.
Close-up of large and small swords
And in the corner displaying handicrafts from the end of the Bakufu period, there was a gorgeous Mokume Gane vase.
Vase display close-up
The Textbook of Mokume Gane features a picture of this vase that was provided by the V&A, but it only shows one side of it. On the occasion of this visit, we were able to see the other side at last!
It is a beautiful piece which harmoniously combines highly decorative ornaments in cloisonné, lacquer, mother of pearl and gold inlay, with a Mokume Gane pattern.
As this is a collection which brings together pieces from all over the world from the perspective of decorative arts and design, each and every piece on display in the “Japan” room is exquisite and finely decorated, and one can go on admiring them without ever tiring of them. (Japan room inro)
Looking at sword tsuba, the proportion of pieces made of Mokume Gane within the framework of everything produced by metal craftsmen at the time was very small, but they are featured in the V&A’s display. This helped us realize once again that this is due to their assessment of the beauty and depth that can be seen in the Mokume Gane techniques.
In the previous chapter, we described the pieces that we were able to view during our visit to the Ashmolean Museum, which is the museum of the University of Oxford. There were numerous technically outstanding pieces, such as the tsuba with the three-dimensional chrysanthemum flower pattern. We hope that you were able to get a feel for the beauty of these pieces through the close-up photographs.
The curator of Japanese Art, Dr. Clare Pollard, was kind enough to show us round the storerooms and the exhibition areas also. We would like to focus on these in this chapter.
The storerooms are located in the vicinity of the exhibition areas. In order to preserve the precious pieces so as to transmit them to future generations, it is vital to control the humidity and temperature to protect the pieces from mold and rust, as well as from cracks due to an overly dry environment. For this reason, the pieces are kept separately according to their materials. This is because the ideal temperature and humidity for organic items made of paper or wood and those made of metal are not the same. Even though it would ideally be best to keep tsuba and other sword fittings in separate storage areas from ceramics, they are in fact kept separately in humidity controlled cases.
Cases featuring humidity control labels.
We were not able to visit some of the storeroom areas. Given the sheer number of pieces, Dr. Pollard has not yet been able to catalog everything. The entire collection is not available on the web either, and there may well yet be some undiscovered Mokume Gane pieces, such as fuchi and kashira, among the sword fittings! We left the vaults till later in anticipation of further research.
The Ashmolean Museum features exhibits from all over the world, including a magnificent Japan exhibit.
We mentioned in Chapter 11 that there was a tea ceremony room where tea ceremonies are held once a month. There were explanations on the structure of this tea room on a large panel.
The exquisite construction within a confined space showed off the artistry of the Japanese Sukiya (tea room) construction technique.
Dr. Pollard told us that visitors showed great interest in Japanese culture, and so she made a great effort to provide in-depth explanations of the exhibits. Would they happen to know how an Inro was worn? It was suspended from the obi, using a netsuke to hold it in place. All of this was illustrated so that people could see, with Inro and their netsuke hanging from a bar in the display.
Dr. Pollard also supervises the prints and Japanese paintings and rotates the exhibits once a month. She explained enthusiastically that there is even a corner where visitors can actually take the exhibits into their hands, so that they can familiarize themselves better with Japanese art. After we had spent several hours studying the tsuba, she then graciously guided us through the exhibits until closing time.
This visit helped us understand how much beautiful traditional Japanese artifacts, starting with the Edo period Mokume Gane tsuba, are appreciated and loved by people in other countries.
We at Mokumeganeya will continue our studies on the Mokume Gane pieces that have been handed down from the Edo period, and will strive to continue to transit, not just the pieces themselves, but also these precious techniques.
We will continue from our last chapter to tell you more about our visit to study mokume-gane pieces in the collection of the Ashmolean, the museum of the University of Oxford. In addition to the three mokume-gane pieces that were introduced in the previous chapter, the museum also has four guribori tsuba, guribori being considered the origin of mokume-gane.
The museum has a total of 1286 tsuba, including the pieces we studied, in its collection, and the largest portion of 1264 pieces was collected by Sir Arthur H. Church (1834-1915). Born in London, he was a scientist and devoted to collecting Japanese tsuba. In his later years in particular, he collected avidly and was systematic in his approach. As a result, his collection was very complete and his texts on these tsuba have even been translated into Japanese. On this visit, we were also able to view a catalogue of the Sir Arthur H. Church tsuba collection written in 1925 by Albert James Koop (1877-1945). This is a hugely valuable work that has never been published. The contents are in English but were later bound in Japan in the Japanese “watoji” style.
The Ashmolean Museum has an excellent website. The Eastern Art department includes, in addition to the regular collection, detailed explanations based on Koop’s catalogue. According to this, Sir Church was particularly taken with botanical and geometric designs which explains the limited number of pieces depicting people or animals.
This might explain why all of the guribori tsuba he collected were relatively unusual, with very rare pieces depicting chrysanthemum flowers not seen anywhere else.
Although many round or mokkô-shaped guribori tsuba were carved with arabesques, this piece represents a three-dimensional chrysanthemum flower with the 16 petals all carved in guribori.
The lines of the layering make one think of the numerous overlapping petals of a chrysanthemum flower, and the tiny embossed pattern in the hitsuana bring to mind the heart of the flower. Even as a tsuba made for a sword, it looks really quite cute.
This piece is presented as the “chrysanthemum tsuba.” The combination of silver and shakudo is rather modern in appearance, with a very sharp design.
This is a guribori tsuba, but if you look closely, the entire surface of the tsuba is not covered in the arabesque patterns, the free curves are drawn in guribori carving, and the use of the two-color effect of black and red on the surface makes it a very unusual piece that shows an elegant flashiness. Looking at it with our modern eyes, it seems to be a western decorative piece and one wonders what the Edo craftsman had in mind in thinking up this “design.” Isn’t it fun to let your mind wander?
Here is the fourth guribori tsuba. Its round arabesque carvings are of a relatively commonly seen pattern.
The English title for this tsuba is “Tsuba with scrolls” but in Japan, the standard term for “scrolls” or arabesques is “karakusa (palmette) pattern.” This has been used for a very long time as an auspicious decorative pattern showing entwined vine as representing vital force.
In studying these seven mokume-gane and guribori pieces on the occasion of this visit, we spent an entire day taking detailed measurements, examining the various parts closely, taking photos, looking at documentation and visiting the vaults and exhibition halls. Next time, we will tell you about our visit to the vaults and exhibition halls with curator Clare Pollard.
You will find the website of the Eeastern Art department at the Ashmolean museum here:
In Chapter 10, we told you about our visit to view the Mokume-Gane tsuba at the British Museum in London. We shared the sentiment of those who, a hundred years ago, came across the tsuba in Japan and were moved by their magnificence and beauty. In this chapter, we will tell you about the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which we also visited on the same trip.
The Ashmolean Museum is located in Oxford which is about an hour by train from London. As you all know, the town of Oxford is where the University of Oxford, a world-class institution on a par with the likes of Harvard University, is located. It has a college system whereby students and teachers live and study within a college, of which there are 39 making up the university. Their buildings are spread across the center of town, boasting gothic architecture going back to the 12th century. The overall impression is of great history and overwhelming beauty.
The Ashmolean is the museum of the University of Oxford. It is the oldest university museum in the world, having been founded in 1683. Its collections are very broad ranging including everything from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art. There is also a Japanese collection which even features a tea ceremony room! There is an actual tea ceremony held there once a month, and it always draws a big crowd.
Let us move on to our study of the mokume-gane tsuba in their collection. We had contacted the curator of Japanese art in advance, and we were to view three mokume-gane tsuba and four guribori tsuba. Museum curators in Europe and North America have great academic knowledge, study the items in the collections, and are in charge of planning exhibitions. They are on a par with university professors in Japan.
We were met on the day of our visit by Clare Pollard, the Curator of Japanese Art. Her specialty is Japan’s Meji era crafts but she has broad knowledge of Japanese art as a whole. She was a delightful, smiling lady who spoke Japanese and had conducted her own research at the Tokyo National Museum in the autumn of 2000. In addition to showing us the tsuba that day, she also took us around the vaults and exhibition halls, and we ended up spending an entire day there.
The various pieces were laid out on a table covered in felt and a layer of silk paper to avoid scratches, as had been the case at the British Museum.
We were finally in the presence of the actual pieces and started examining them and taking measurements. We began with the three mokume-gane pieces.
This is a rather small mokkô-shaped tsuba. It was probably for a small sword. The color on the tsuba is outstanding with a bright red copper achieved by niiro-chakushoku with copper sulfate. The other color is black shakudo (a combination of silver and copper). The beautiful mokume-gane pattern carved out on a small surface makes it a very interesting piece.
A large tsuba covered in countless round wood grains. It alone weighs 123.5 grams, hinting at a pretty heavy sword overall. It is very similar to a tsuba in the collection of the Baur Foundation Museum in Switerland.
This is a highly unusual decorative tsuba. It is a tsuba that required a great deal of work, with the main mokume-gane part in three colors to which another metal was affixed, and the rim of the fuchi also being in three colors. One can but wonder about the dandyish samurai who owned it, and his flamboyant taste!
The time just flew by as we examined the pieces, measured them and took detailed photos.
We will tell you about the four guribori pieces and visiting the exhibition halls in the next chapter!
Mokume Gane pieces such as sword guards have been collected as works of art by foreign collectors since the Meiji era. Many of these are now part of the collections of the world’s great museums. On this occasion, we would like to tell you about the Mokume Gane pieces which are part of the collections of the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The British Museum is located in London, England, and boasts the largest number of collection pieces of any museum in the world. It holds about eight million pieces, including many excavated artifacts and works of art that were collected during the heyday of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many famous cultural assets and works of art are on display including the Rosetta Stone which played a major role in the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as ancient Egyptian mummies and a Moai from Easter Island.
The Mokume Gane pieces which we determined to be in the collections of the British Museum are not normally on display but are kept in the storage vaults. These pieces came to be part of the British Museum collections upon the death of Collingwood Ingram (1881-1981). He was an ornithologist and also a plant collector. During Queen Victoria’s reign, in the second half of the 19th century, he brought back many ornamental cherry trees from Japan and their beauty led to a boom. Mr. Ingram visited Japan three times, collecting Japanese cherry trees, a subject on which he became a global authority to the extent that his nickname was “Cherry”. So, he had a deep connection with Japan and became a great collector, particularly of netsuke, but also acquired Mokume Gane tsuba. It is possible that we were the first Japanese in almost a century who were able to admire these items that had crossed the ocean along with cherry trees.
We conducted this visit after obtaining permission from the Department of Asia for people from the Mokumegane Research Institute to come to England for a study visit. On the day we visited in mid-June, there were already many people gathered in front of the main entrance before opening time. Visits to the British Museum are free for people from all over the world, and there are boxes for donations. Much of the cost for the upkeep and exhibition of these precious objects comes from donations. We also made a contribution and then immediately headed to the designated place for our research at opening time.
We were a little nervous when we knocked on the door of the research department which is located beside the Asian art exhibition halls, but we were welcomed with a smiling face by Daryl Tappin. She is an assistant collections manager in care and access for the British Museum collections. She explained to us the outline of the warehouse and preservation methods, and she also gave us some details on other museums in Britain with Japanese collections. She was most kind and the day proved very useful to our research.
The table was entirely covered with felt so as not to damage any of the items, and there was a further layer of fine paper on top of the felt. There was a digital microscope and measuring instruments had also been brought in for us. We put on the rubber gloves that had been provided and started our research.
A sword tsuba made of Mokume Gane had already been displayed on a broad study table. There was one Mokume Gane tsuba as well as a tsuba with decorations similar to Mokume Gane. We experienced a moment of delight on seeing for real the Mokume Gane tsuba which we had only see through images on the web!
We were finally able to pick up the tsuba and take detailed measurements of its size and weight. Many tsuba appear flat at first sight but they are made so that the central part is thicker, the thickness and hitsuana are measured radially in a total of 24 spots from the center of the tsuba to the rim. Every part was also photographed using the digital microscope.
As a result of this, we made discoveries that had not been apparent from just looking at web photos! It is often the case that the fuchi portion of the surface and side of the back and front of the tsuba are made separately, but with this tsuba, the Mokume Gane sheet for the surface was worked, as is, for the fuchi too. You can probably see from the illustration how the Mokume Gane pattern continues on to the sides. It requires extraordinary technical skill to create the fuchi as though it had been wound subsequently, from one same sheet without breaking the Mokume Gane pattern.
In addition, what looks like flea-bitten traces on the surface and back of the tsuba was in fact produced by hammering a steel mold on top of the Mokume Gane sheet. This can be deduced from the way the Mokume Gane patterns is continuous. Furthermore, the inside of the molded pattern was decorated using a chisel with an indented tip called a nanako. Through close examination on this occasion, we were able to understand how the changes in the various types of flea-bitten traces were achieved by combining different sizes of mold, and admired this outstanding manufacturing technique.
Mr. Ingram who brought this tsuba to England was an ornithologist and a botanist. It is likely that he admired the delicate skill of the Japanese in showing nature, such as the patterns made with Mokume Gane and the flea-bitten expressions, and fell in love with them. Through our examination, we felt once again how truly outstanding pieces go beyond time and borders, in spanning the centuries.
At the Ashmolean Museum that we also visited in Oxford on this trip, there were seven Mokume Gane and guribori tsuba. All of them were extremely interesting, and they included decorative techniques that are not to be seen elsewhere. As the person in charge of Japanese art also showed us relevant documents and vaults, we will share details of these in further chapters!