Mokume-gane is a traditional Japanese metalworking technique that involves laminating and manipulating metals of various colours to create wood-like patterns. The resulting mixed-metal laminate has a beautiful distinctive look that closely resembles natural wood grain – hence the Japanese translation of Mokume-gane as “wood eye metal” or “wood grain metal.”
While the technique was originally honed in the 17th century to decorate swords, it has since been used to create a variety of objects – including cookware, crockery and jewellery.
Mokume-gane involves fusing sheets of metal in alternating layers to form a stack (or billet). This is then worked to expose the internal layers of the billet, which creates the wood grain pattern over the surface. There are several ways this can be achieved, including:
- Carving into the laminated surface, then either flattening the carved billet or leaving it as a relief pattern
- Punching or stamping from either side of the billet and then scalping the surface down to a uniform thickness by milling or using files
- Twisting or forging one end of the billet to expose the end grain
There is no limit to the patterns that can be created using any of these techniques, which is what gives Mokume-gane pieces their wonderful uniqueness.
A Brief History
After its rise and fall in Japan, Mokume-gane techniques were adopted by Tiffany & Co. in the late 19th century. Tiffany’s showcased the art form with their award-winning ‘Conglomerate Vase’, which is widely regarded as the most important work of 19th-century American silver – and sold for $585,500 in 1998.
Tiffany’s continued to develop and enhance the technique over the years – winning prestigious awards in the process – but the method still remained mostly unknown due to its complexity and Japan’s movement away from the craft. That changed in the 1970s, when two metal smiths brought Mokume-gane works to the United States. This kicked off a return to popularity for the lost art form, helping to bring it back into the public eye – where it has since remained.
The Art Form Today
Modern Mokume-gane has evolved to include a number of non-traditional materials such as platinum, iron, titanium, bronze, nickel silver, sterling silver, and brass. Several colours of karat gold can also be incorporated, including yellow, rose, white, and sage.
Today, the process is mostly used for jewellery – particularly wedding rings for couples who want something more special than traditional options. The appeal of these rings is based not only on their beauty but also the distinctive pattern, as no two Mokume-gane rings have the same appearance. Another element of their appeal lies in the meeting of cultures and time periods. Those who wear these rings know they are wearing an art form that goes back more than four hundred years.
Mokume-gane rings can also be customised to appeal to both modern and traditional tastes, with jewellers offering customisation to help adapt them to the wearer’s personal style – including with various stones and stone setting styles.