Mokume-gane can be used to make many different jewelry items, though it is most commonly seen in the form of rings.
Why Choose Mokume-Gane Jewelry?
People who choose mokume-gane for their jewelry generally do so because they’re attracted to the unique aesthetic of the metal, as well as the uncommon nature of mokume-gane pieces. Since mokume-gane pieces all need to be individually hand-made, each one is a singular work of art with its own distinct pattern. Couples particularly favor mokume-gane for their wedding rings, viewing the pairing of the different metals as symbolic of their own marital union.
Different Color Patterns in Mokume-Gane
Another advantage of mokume-gane is the many options you have for color patterns. Through the use of various precious metals, mokume-gane pieces can be given a wide range of different appearances to suit many differing tastes and needs.
When you order a mokume-gane piece from a jeweler, you will generally be given a list of metal options that may include two or three of any of the following:
When shopping for mokume-gane, consider the kind of aesthetic you’d prefer. Do you like the stark contrast of red copper against white silver, or would you prefer the subtle charm of white gold against white silver? Further, consider your particular needs for this piece. Some metals are more durable than others, and may make for a more appropriate everyday piece. Platinum can last for a lifetime, for example, while white gold needs to be re-finished periodically in order to keep its coloration. Copper pieces are also not highly recommended for long time use; not only can the metal be easily compromised by some people’s slightly acidic sweat, but a weak chemical reaction between copper and the other metals in the mokume-gane can cause the copper to deteriorate in as little as a year.
The Process of Making Mokume-Gane
Producing mokume-gane jewelry is a very difficult and time-consuming process. It requires a lot of patience and skill, and can only be reliably practiced by highly trained and experienced metalworkers. It is this process that makes mokume-gane the uncommon and unique phenomenon that it is.
The first step of the process is the selection of the metals to be used. These metals then must be assembled in the form of non-tempered bullion plates, allowing that the atoms of the metals can be easily diffused into each other’s surface. These plates are then rolled into an appropriate thickness and meticulously cleaned of any dirt, oil, or oxidation, which can compromise the integrity of the finished piece. Now the metal is ready to be fused together.
The plates of metal are stacked together and held in place in a vice-like framework that keeps them under pressure during the heating process. This assembly is then subjected to high temperatures. The metals need to be brought to just the right temperature so that they begin to “sweat” without fully melting and combining into a single alloy. The tiny portions of liquid metal diffuse into the neighboring metal plates, forming a solid bond when they cool. It is important at this stage that the metals are heated evenly, allowing an equal diffusion of atoms across the surfaces of every layer of metal.
The next step of the process is to forge the metal into the desired shape. Now removed from its framework, the metal is heated again and struck repeatedly with a hammer. Depending on the pattern that the craftsman is trying to achieve, the metal may be twisted, carved, drilled, and rolled while it is fashioned into a sheet. This sheet is now ready to be cut, shaped, and polished into the final pieces of jewelry.
The term mokume-gane is of Japanese origin, literally translating to “wood-grain metal”. It describes the delicate art of joining together various layers of similar metals such that they take on the appearance of a piece of wood. The result is quite beautiful and unique, making mokume-gane a popular choice for jewelry throughout the world.
Mokume-gane is somewhat akin to the concept of damascus steel, where plates of steel and iron are fused together to similar effect. The big difference here is in the materials being used. While damascus steel makes use of the iron group of metals, mokume-gane employs precious metals. Gold, silver, copper, and platinum are common choices for mokume-gane.
The history of mokume-gane goes back to the 17th century. Around this time, the samurai katana sword was transitioning from the battlefield to the home, serving as an indoor decoration and a status symbol for the warrior class. There was therefore a lot of demand for elaborate adornments for these swords. Responding to this demand, a master metalsmith in the Akita prefecture by the name of Denbei Shoami first perfected the technique of fusing metal together in the distinctive mokume-gane patterns. The first mokume-gane items were samurai swords and armor pieces, decorating the homes of Japan’s elite.
In the late eighteen hundreds, mokume-gane hit a bump in the road. It became illegal to wear swords in public. Demand for mokuke-gane plummeted, and many craftsmen had to abandon the art form. This, combined with the great difficulty of learning and practicing the art form, caused mokume-gane to almost entirely vanish from public consciousness.
Fortunately, enough of mokume-gane managed to survive into the twentieth century, when it was first introduced to the United States. As the American public embraced it for its enchanting beauty, modern techniques were developed to harness the art form for jewelry, accessories, dishware, and other items.