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Mokume Gane: From Swords to Jewelry

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.

Chris Ploof Mokume Gane
Hand-forged Mokume Gane rings featuring 18-karat yellow gold, 14-karat palladium white gold, 14-karat rose gold, palladium 500, silver. | Courtesy, Chris Ploof

Decorative Objects

Chris Ploof Mokume Gane
“Layla” commitment ring in hand-forged cedar pattern Mokume Gane in 14-karat palladium white gold and silver with 18-karat gold rails and flush bezel with .20-carat round diamond. | Courtesy, Chris Ploof

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.

Layering Metal

Chris Ploof Mokume Gane
Hand-forged oak pattern Mokume Gane ring in 18-karat gold, 14-karat rose gold, and etched sterling silver. | Courtesy, Chris Ploof

“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.

Chris Ploof Mokume Gane
Hand-forged birch pattern Mokume Gane ring in 14-karat rose gold, palladium 500, and silver with offset diamond overlay. | Courtesy, Chris Ploof

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

Chris Ploof Mokume Gane
Hand-forged maple pattern etched Mokume Gane ring in 18-karat gold, palladium 500, and silver. | Courtesy, Chris Ploof

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.

Unique Beauty

Chris Ploof Harper Ring
“Harper” commitment ring in hand-forged maple pattern Mokume Gane in 14-karat palladium white gold and silver with a 6 mm blue sapphire bezel set in 18K gold. | Courtesy, Chris Ploof

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

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