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The History of Mokume-gane

Mokume-gane was first developed in Japan about 300 years ago to reproduce the grain found in the steel used in the famous swords of that time. The material was used for tsuba (sword guards) and holloware and was produced by welding sheets of low alloy coppers into a single block.

(Fast forward 300 years to New York late 19th Century). Japanese design was very popular at this time and Tiffany's of New York copied the Japanese mokume-gane by soldering copper alloys and silver together to form a single billit, using the metals to make highly decorative holloware. Very few of these works survive, indicating custom production.

Fast forward to USA, mid-1970's). Interest in historic methods of knifemaking, especially damascus steel, was at an all time high. Research at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale was combined with traditional Japanese methods researched by Gene and Hiroko Pijanowski to produce the basis of contemporary mokume-gane. This new material was superior to both the traditional Japanese mokume and the soldered composite metal of Tiffany's, in terms of soundness and variety of metal combinations.

mokume gane lamp(The period of 1980 thru the late 1990's was one of many people in many countries developing their own variations based on the process developed at SIU. In 1984 Phillip Baldwin made the first commercial offering of mokume-gane in the USA through Shining Wave Metals and Reactive Metals Studio. The main area of development was in noble metal mokume for use in jewelry. The exhibition, "Knock on Wood — American Mokume Invitational", at the National Ornamental Metals Museum, Memphis, TN opened in April 1998 and showcased the very rich works in the medium from fine jewelry to large vessel forms.

In 2000 Steve Midget published his book, Mokume-gane, A Comprehensive Study which very accurately described the process, technical considerations and art of the field at that time. The book contained many excellent photographs and contributions from innovators in the field including Ian Ferguson and Jim Binnion. This book helped create the third wave of interest in patterned metals that continues to this day.

In 2004 Shining Wave Metals and Reactive Metals Studio received an MJSA/AJM innovation award for their efforts in developing and marketing a whole new class of jewelry materials. Mokume-gane had arrived into the mainstream of the jewelry industry. Innovation continues apace with the development of Extrusion Patterned Metals (XPM) by Jim Binnion and Steve Midget, an MJSA/AJM Innovation 2008 award winner.

It appears that the history of mokume-gane is still a work in progress, heading to an interesting future, full of surprises. We will keep you posted.


© P. Baldwin 2009