Mokume Gane | jap.: wood patterned metal | Historical development
The error with the damask steel
With the search for an improved material for the blades of weapons, the era of patterned metals also begins. In Damascus, Europeans first find sabre weapons made of unusually high-quality steel. For this reason, the material is also erroneously called Damascus steel by the crusaders. This weapon steel surprises above all by its so far unknown spring force and strength.
In addition, his wavy and flamed patterns are fascinating. The Roman scholar Cassiodor describes these weapons in the 6th century as "...forged by volcano..." and "...not the work of a mortal, but the work of a god." If one looks at the development of this new steel, it seems to have taken place independently of each other in very different areas of Europe and Asia.
From Rome to Malaysia
In old Norse legends layered blades appear as well as in archaeological excavations at sites that date back to the 2nd century and are of Roman origin. The Malay dagger "Kris" from the 13th century is made of fire-welded steel. Several alternating layers of soft iron and steel form the dagger blade after multiple folding, forging and etching of the surface.
Damascus steel in China and Japan
Already in the 1st century B.C. layered steel appeared in China. The Japanese Samurai, or rather their armourers, then developed the layered steel to its completion. During the welding process, the steel is enriched with carbon.
First Mokume Gane by Denbei Shoami
The blademaker Shoami (1651-1728) from Akita in Japan made a name for himself with extraordinary works in steel as well as in softer materials alloyed with precious metals. For the first time he welded non-ferrous metals and decorated them artistically. He calls it Mokume Gane (wood-structured metal). The Kizuka sword handle, made in Mokume Gane, is considered his first work. He used silver, gold and shakudo for this. Many old samurai swords have round or oval discs made in Mokume Gane as blade ends and hand protection.
Why is Mokume Gane so distinctive in Japan?
There are several reasons why the technique of Mokume Gane became so well established in Japan. Two of them are certainly the very highly developed art of sword making and extensive knowledge in the metallurgical field. The existence of large schools and an excellent exchange of information also favored the so far-reaching development of the Mokume Gane. Furthermore, there were unique colored metal alloys in Japan, such as, for example, Shakudo | Shibuishi | Kuromido.
Precious metal was in short supply
These mainly copper-containing alloys were created mainly due to the lack of precious metals such as gold and silver, which were very rare in Japan and therefore expensive. There are no other historical Mokume Gane works known outside Japan.
Well guarded secrets
Why was the Mokume Gane technique not known outside of Japan for a long time? Firstly, Japan was an isolated island until 1853. The techniques of Japanese artists and craftsmen were well kept as secrets. In addition, the Mokume Gane was an old tradition in swordsmithing and was therefore only meant for them.
Industrial revolution in Europe suppresses Mokume Gane
Secondly, the industrial revolution developed in Western countries, which meant that alchemistically seeming craftsmanship and emotions were increasingly frowned upon. Rather, everything that could be produced quickly and cheaply in large quantities developed here.
The turning point for the Mokume Gane
It was not until the 1960s that the jewelry industry also made the transition from purely decorative, prestigious investments to a more and more artistic approach. This was the basis for the discovery and development of the Mokume Gane in the USA in the seventies.
There it was Hiroko Sato and Gene Pijanowski who began to work with the Mokume Gane in the seventies. After some unsatisfactory results the two went to Japan to learn the classical Mokume Gane technique. Back in their homeland they developed the Mokume Gane techniques further and made among other things large vessels as well as pieces of jewelry.
1970: soldered metal layers by George Sayer, USA
1978: Mc Cullum from England traveled to Japan to learn the Mokume Gane techniques and worked, back in England, great vessels.
1980: Steven D. Kretschmer, USA, learned the Mokume Gane technique from Sato and Pijanoeski and worked from then on on Gold Mokume Gane bars without the use of solder. As the Mokume Gane requires a considerable amount of time and material, it was initially unable to spread for a long time due to both working time and cost reasons.