Mokume Gane History

The History of Mokume Gane:
From Swordmaking to Fine Jewelry

Mokume Gane (木目金) was first created by Denbei Shoami (1651-1728) in the last decades of the 17th century in the Akita Prefecture in Japan. This intricate Japanese metalworking art was most typically reserved for decorating samurai swords.
In Shintoism, samurai and martial arts were highly respected. Therefore, only the finest artisans produced elaborate swords with exceptional artistry, and these weapons were a way for samurai to express their wealth, power, and social status.
Mokume Gane was most often used to decorate:
  • the kozuka, a small utility knife which fit into a pocket on the wooden saya
  • the tsuba, a Japanese sword guard. Most preserved Mokume Gane objects from this period are tsuba.
Photo of a Knife handle (Kozuka) with blade from 18th Century courtesy of THE MET Museum
Photo of a Sword Guard (Tsuba). Date: first third of 19th century. Photo by Alamy

Denbei Shoami: Father of Mokume Gane

The history of mokume gane starts with Denbei Shoami. Denbei Shoami was a superb Japanese craftsman who received permission to use the name Shoami from Shoami School (founded in the late 1500s in Kyoto). He was also supported by the Satake clan – which was then Daimyo (大名) – in the Akita region.

While Mokume Gane was Shoami’s invention, he was also a historically important artisan who produced superior steel swords and sword fittings with carving and inlay.

From Guri Bori to Mokume Gane

At first, Shoami named his technique Guri Bori because the pattern was similar to Guri, one of the Tsuishu techniques in lacquer work (Urushi) that originated in ancient China.

Tsuishu techniques occur when patterns are carved into thick layers of differently-colored lacquer. When line patterns are created, it is referred to as Guri.
guriburi multi layered from the 19th century
Photo of a Guriburi from the 19th century. Photo by Asianart

It’s unclear whether Denbei Shoami was trying to achieve what we know today as Mokume Gane, or if he was attempting to imitate the Urushi lacquer technique. However, we do know that early in its history, Shoami’s technique was referred to as Guri Bori.

The Earliest History of Mokume Gane

metalsmiths-working-on-the-forge-of-a-Mokume-gane-billet
Metalsmiths working on the forge. Photo by Sculpture and Images
There is no doubt that Denbei Shoami was influenced by the craft of swordmaking and adapted these forging and welding principles to create Mokume Gane. Shoami discovered that metals (other than steel and iron) could be joined together to create patterns similar to lacquer work.
The oldest example of Shaomi’s Mokume Gane was used in a Kozuka (sword hilt) using gold, silver, Shakudo (a gold and copper alloy), and copper. This technique was also called Itame Gane or Yosefuki.
Though a succession of metalsmiths continued practicing traditional Mokume Gane techniques, none have been as revered as Shoami, the original master of this craft.

What Does Mokume Gane Mean?

Mokume Gane can be translated as “wood eye gold.”

木目金、木 = wood, 目= eye, 金 = gold
Note: When “gold” is used with other Japanese characters, it may refer to metals other than gold.

Mokume Gane’s Evolution

After Japan’s military reforms in 1877, carrying swords in public was forbidden. As Japan began opening to the Western world, artisans had to make different objects for their traditional work to live on.
During the mid-20th century, metalworkers like Norio Tamagawa (who is still practicing today) and Gyokumei Shindo were able to preserve the Mokume Gane technique while becoming celebrated masters of the art. Most commonly, they created handmade bowls and vessels called Shibori (絞り).
Photo of Mokume Gane Master Norio Tamagawa in his workshop. Photo by Kenoh

Bringing Mokume Gane to the Western World

In the 1970s, Eugene and Hiroko Pijanowski studied Mokume Gane techniques with Norio Tamagawa and brought the art to the Western world, most notably in the form of their jewelry designs. These jewelry pieces were entirely metal and rarely deviated from Mokume Gane patterns (which were also random and without much strategy).

Although the basic technique concept hasn’t altered dramatically over the centuries, greater scientific understanding has resulted in more advanced equipment and designs. That said, the best Mokume Gane pieces cannot be achieved by large manufacturers or assembly lines. It’s important to look for small, specialized studios run by artisans who are dedicated to mastering this art form by using hammer and heat alone.

Mokume Gane Jewelry

mokume gane wood grain metal diamond and sapphire pendant

While Mokume Gane is an ancient metalworking technique, its use in jewelry making is a fairly recent development – and is rarely paired with gemstones. With Jaume Labro’s bespoke jewelry creation, each piece is entirely handmade using traditional Mokume Gane techniques. Our exclusive mokume engagement rings as well our mokume wedding rings and bands are growing in popularity due the quality, craftsmanship and history behind each piece.

Discover how our artisans fuse ancient methods, modern designs, and unparalleled gemstones to create our Mokume Gane jewelry.

If you want to know more about the history of mokume gane and the future of the technique, we will be glad to share the same passion with you.

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