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Japanese Damascene metal treatment

Fred E. Zweig

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I transcribed this from the book titled "Their Japan"


Their Japan

Frederic De Garis


Yoshikawa publisher

Bentendori, Yokahama


Page 95




It is believed that damascene was first brought to Japan about 2,000 years ago, reputedly form Damascus, through Korea. In course of time, Japanese craftsmen became skilled in it’s manufacture, and sword handles, helmets and other articles were adorned with damascene. To meet the demand, cigar and cigarette cases, cuff-buttons, boxes, brooches, powder jars, and numerous other articles, decorated with damascene inlay, are now produced in quantity. The United States and England are the largest buyers of this ware. Annually, more than half of the 300,000 Yen worth of damascene were manufactured in Japan is exported.


Steel is the usual foundation of the articles, though bronze, silver, and gold are occasionally employed. Craftsmen, sitting cross-legged before a low bench covered with chisels, little hammers, and balls of gold and silver thread, fabricate the articles, which go through many processes before they are ready for marketing. The following explains the method.


A design, first drawn on a piece of tissue paper, is placed over the metal surface and traced with a fine chisel into the metal---then removed. The outlines thus cut are undercut for times crosswise and four times diagonally (hatched) to produce something like a silken texture. Into these minute grooves, gold or silver threads almost as find as cobwebs are hammered, and a deer-horn hammer is used to smooth the surface and tamp down rough thread edges. The article is then placed in a cabinet and made to corrode by the use of nitrate acid, which later is removed with soda water. When dry, it is washed twice in weak salt water and baked over a fire. Eight or nine times a day for a period of five days in summer and seven in winter, the article is washed and baked until all the rust in the steel has been conducted out. The clean surface is the dipped into thick red-clay mud and baked again over a hot fire---this process being repeated from 50 to 100 times.


The next step is to coat the surface with powdered charcoal and oil, bake and repeat from 10 to 20 times, adding more charcoal and oil each time. A piece of cryptomeria wood is used to clean off the black powder, and a small steel rod to rub the surface to a polish. The last step is to add any necessary carvings. Often these are monograms or handwritten names of the purchasers, if desired. To retain the original polish, the ariticle should be rubbed once a month with a soft cloth dipped in olive oil. Should the inlays become tarnished, rub them with a cotton cloth stretched over a finger tip. The damascene wares of Ohayo, Shimmonzen St., Kyoto, can be recommended.




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  • 3 months later...


I wish to share this with you.

This Geisha's powder box is a fine example of 1880s Japanese Komai by Fukagawa. The 'gold' metal, internally and externally, is in fact 24ct gold. Internally it is clad with beautifully engraved sheets of 24ct gold.

My images are poor because, they have been retrieved from one of my computers whose, mother board I managed to burn.








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Hi Maryanna and welcome to the forum,


The images of your box appear to represent an example of the work produced during the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Much was produced for export and the Western market. These were commonly made from iron and decorated with zogan work (damascene). The term Komai refers to the family name of the owner of one of the main shops where this technique was practiced. It is mistakenly use to refer to the technique.


High karat gold was often used along with fine silver, copper, and rarely platinum to embed onto the surface of the textured iron. The last images of the back of the box show traces of verdigris or the patina formed on brass exposed to moist atmospheres. I suspect your box is not an example of damascene work. The engraved lining of your box is probably gold plated brass and not solid gold.


If this is an item you still own I would ask you to test it with a magnet to see if it is attracted to it. Please place a paper between the magnet and box so as not to scratch it.


I am very interested to know why you attribute this to Fukagawa. I have studied and collected this this type of work for several years and am always willing to learn what I can about identification of these treasures.


The mark on your box is similar to the mark used by the Fukagawa Porcelain Co. I am unaware of any documentation that the had a metalworking shop as well.




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Hello, Fred.


Thank you for your welcome.


I no longer own my box. I sold it, 2 years ago after having owned it for many.


I listed it for sale with little information.

I received many offers and, luckily, one kind person informed me of the damascene technique.

I added this information to my listing.

Another retired jeweller from the US asked for more images. I sent them. He informed me that it was damscene work and, he confirmed that Fukagawa did not only make pottery. The firm made high end metal work, as well, not limited to Cloisonné. Our correspondence is somewhere here, saved on a disk.


I withdrew the sale.


I took it to a jeweller of antique and estate jewellery, here in Sydney city. He removed the internal sheets and tested them for gold. He confirmed the findings of those two gentlemen. The feet, the external inlay decoration tested 24ct gold as did the internal sheets.


I took it to Bonhams, in Sydney. Again, the expert was in agreement with the previous assessments, confirmed the Fukagawa connection and, suggested that I place it in their Sale. I did not.


I listed it for sale with all the information in my possession. The bidding commenced immediately with offers pouring in. I allowed the auction to run its course and, it finally sold to a lady from Canada. I sent her copies of all correspondence and information gathered. (Interestingly, not a single bid from Australians.)


On the basis of the above, alone (for I am no expert), I believed that it was an example of damascene work.


Yes, I know that Komai is a family name and that they produced examples of damascene work. And, I apologise for my liberal use of the word - some habits die hard. :)




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Guest ford hallam

Hello Maryanna, Fred.


For what it's worth I'd have to say that I think Fred's description and assesment of this piece is spot on. Until recently I specialised in the restoration of some of the finest Meiji period metalwork passing through London. I have never seen a solid, pure gold lining on a box and would have to agree with Fred's assertion that it is plated. Fine silver is often encountered though. The images posted appear to show the expected areas of wear on the undersides of the feet and on the most exposed areas of the rims etc. I'd take that as confirmation of Fred's judgement.


This sort of decoration represents the very last sort of "mock" nunome-zogan ( cloth weave inlay). It is, as Fred wrote, etched brass or copper. The recesssed areas are filled with a sabi-urushi ( rust-like lacquer ) to simulate the iron ground of the real thing, and the exposed areas of the design then engraved and plated with gold and silver.


These comments are of course not meant to denigrate the piece but merely to help accurately describe it and it's place relative to the development of Japanese metalwork of this period. In my estimation though, it is a long way from being representative of fine, classical work.


The other piece that Fred and Doug commented on is also accurately assessed ( in my opinion), I'd only add that the black filler is most likely urushi.


Regards to all, Ford


p.s. Maryanna, you may find a tutorial of sorts, describing the technique of nunome-zogan, in the metalwork section which you might find interesting.

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I find the older documentation may not describe things always accurately and I still find it interesting. Sometimes the ingredients in formulas are described in archaic names and sometimes how it is described will click in the mind of the reader.


As I find more documentation of this technique I will post it.



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