Noble Mokume Gane: An Education on the Art Form

Posted by Susan Freda on

As many of you may know we have spoken a few times about mokume gane, what it is and how its made. Our original blog post here "What is Mokume"states :

"Mokume gane is an ancient metalworking technique in which layers of base and/or precious metals are alloyed together with heat and pressure, then twisted, carved, and forged to create beautiful organic patterns. Mokume Gane is Japanese and translates to "wood eye metal" which reflects the wood grain patterning admired by the Japanese craftsmen. This rare metal lamination process is similar to Damascus and was developed and used by Japanese swordsmiths in the 17th century to adorn samurai swords."

But as of late we have seen many pieces of jewelry flooding the market under the umbrella of "mokume" or "mokume gane".  Arn and I have begun looking into what determines if something is or is not mokume in the traditional sense. We want to make sure that our customers understand what they are buying and what the differences are in the landscape of this amazing, valuable, and skillful craft. 

Essentially mokume can be broken into two categories, base metal and noble metal mokume.  The highest quality mokume which is the only combination we feel is suited for rings is made from layered noble metals. Noble metals are also called "precious" metals. They are ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum, and gold. When something is made from copper, brass, nickel, or any other metal not listed as precious it is called base metal. Base metal is inexpensive and can have issues in rings as it can causes allergies in many individuals, skin discoloration, and may erode and delaminate over time. In our opinion these metals should not be made into wedding rings because they won't last.  You can see this discussed in greater detail here in a blog by renowned mokume jeweler James Binnion.  Another aspect that a buyer might encounter is liner on the ring. Often the liner is made of gold or silver. There is nothing wrong with an added liner but it does cut down not the amount of mokume in your ring. Mokume is more valuable that gold or silver because of the labor, skill,  and uniqueness of it. If you purchase a solid mokume ring it will inherently have more value than one with a liner. 

Another aspect of true traditional mokume is how it is made.  Mokume is created by diffusion bonding different metal alloys together in either the solid or liquid phases of the metal.   If a material is cast or 3d printed to create it then it is not mokume gane.  This means there are no layers and instead there is a surface texture that resembles the patterns you see in mokume. Mokume is made by fastidiously layering and fusing precious metals and then twisting, carving, forging this material to create patterns.  The cast method is a short cut to just show a surface pattern that is similar. While this is not a bad thing in itself it is no way mokume gane and can't be called that or demand the same prices. The surface pattern could wear away over time and doesn't show a variety of color unless there is metal plated on the low areas. This will also wear away over time and does not go through the whole ring. Even layered precious metal clays are not strictly mokume as they are actually sintered particles of metal and are not solid or ductile.

Yet another variation on the theme is damascus. Damascus is perhaps the original form of mokume and was used in swords in Japan. It is very similar to mokume but differs in that it is made from steel and not precious metal and since it is made from alloys of steel it has variations of greys in color and not the colors than gold can provide.  Also any steel alloys that are not stainless will eventually rust and may eventually delaminate.

There has been a recent explosion in the use of non-traditional metals to make layered metal billets using metals like titanium, tantalum, zirconium and other exotic metals.  These combinations are stable but share the same limited palette as steel unless they are anodized which produces rainbow colors, however this is a surface treatment microns thick which will eventually wear away which will obliterate any visible pattern. Only Mokume shows the wonderful innate variation of colors of silver, all the colors of gold, and the contrasting greys of palladium and platinum.

In terms of value damascus costs less than mokume gane because of course steel is less costly than gold. Other materials such as brass, nickel and other base metals are by far the least costly but are only appropriate for jewelry that is not worn in a daily sense, less you risk the metal eroding or discoloration on your skin.

Hopefully this overview has been helpful in understanding this landscape and educating our amazing patrons who collect fine jewelry and love the art form as much as we do!

Thank you!  




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