An ancient Japanese sword making technique, Mokume Gane, has become a uniquely modern jewelry making process. Mokume Gane, which translates to wood grain metal, was developed by Denbei Shoami, a Japanese builder of sword parts. He was a master metalsmith and he invented a technique of bonding layers of precious metal together using heat and pressure so that when it’s cut, it reveals a wood-grain like pattern.
Mokume Gane is a time consuming process that requires a great deal of skill. Today only a hand full of artisans worldwide create jewelry using this technique. Shoami came up with the process in the 17th century to create decorative sword handles and sheaths, which were used more as status symbols than weapons by Samurais at that time. Eventually, as sword making dwindled, the few artisans who practiced this technique used it to make other decorative objects. By the beginning of the 20th century, the technique had pretty much faded into oblivion. During the 1970s two metalsmiths who had learned the technique in Japan brought it to the U.S. and began teaching others how to make Mokume Gane.
“Three or more layers of precious metal are bonded together and manipulated to create a pattern,” explains metalsmith and Mokume Gane expert, Chris Ploof, owner/designer Chris Ploof Designs in Massachusetts.
Ploof became interested in the art of Mokume Gane when he saw a ring that was made using this method. He started taking jewelry making classes and reading a book on Mokume Gane, which really caught his interest. He eventually landed an apprenticeship to learn jewelry making.
“Mostly, I learned through the school of hard-knocks. It took me several years of working on billets before I could make one,” says Ploof. Billets are the blocks of stacked metals that are used to make Mokume Gane, a process that is done 90 percent by hand. The billets take about three days to make and are anywhere from a half inch to one inch thick.
Finding the Grain
The characteristic that makes Mokume Gane so special is the wood graining. “The pattern comes from carving, cutting and forging the metal flat or twisting it. That exposes some layers but not others,” Ploof reveals.
According to Ploof the most challenging aspect of making Mokume Gane is the waste. By the time a piece is finished about 65 percent of the original weight of the metal is lost. “We send all the waste to be refined,” says Ploof, who adds that the refined metal can be reused.
Consumers who want something uniquely different are often enchanted by the intriguing patterns in Mokume Gane jewelry. “The beauty of Mokume Gane is that it is like a fingerprint or snowflake, each one is different and can’t be duplicated,” concludes Ploof. “It’s unusual to have a piece of art on your hand. Every time I study a ring, I find a new pattern. Each ring is a unique piece of art.”
Authored by Amber Michelle
All photos courtesy, Chris Ploof