Jody Bishel, Mokume Gane Earthstar Vessel, circa 2002

The Origins of Polymer Mokume Gane

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Posted in Techniques

Mokume Gane creates the illusion of irregular knothole-like configurations on the surface.   Today, mokume gane is integral to the established repertoire of polymer techniques.  Many artists use some variation or derivative of the concept.   However, mokume gane is a centuries old Japanese metals technique devised to reproduce the wavy grain patterning of certain steels used for Samurai swords; so how did it become incorporated into the polymer vocabulary?

First some history:   The concept of mokume gane (moku= wood, me=eye, gane=metal) was introduced to western metal smiths in 1866 by Raphael Pumpelly, an American geologist and explorer.  There was some limited exploration and success with the technique by art nouveau metal smiths but interest dissipated.  Mokume gane remained unknown to modern jewelers until the middle of the 20th century.   Intrigued by the work of Cyril Stanley Smith, during the late 1960s /early 1970s a group of students led by Professor L. Brent Kington at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale began to experiment with layering metals, which this is the foundation of the mokume gane technique.  Around the same time, Hiroko Sato Pijanowski and Gene Pijanowski returned from Japan where they learned about mokume gane methods from Noirio Tamagawa, one of the few Japanese craftsmen able to create it.  After their return to the States, the Pijanowskis began to publish and teach about mokume gane.  By the late 1970s the Pijanowskis had met and shared resources with the SIUC group.   Once introduced, mokume gane began to appear in books of metal techniques, such as Oppi Untracht’s, Jewelry: Concepts and Technology (first ed. 1982).

Nan Roche, polymer mokume gane sample for illustration in The New Clay, circa 1990

Nan Roche, polymer mokume gane sample for illustration in The New Clay, circa 1990

Enter Nan Roche, who has been a lifelong follower of many crafts and consequently has accumulated a large library including the Untracht text.   As she was experimenting and writing about polymer for her seminal book, The New Clay, (1991) Nan turned to Untracht for information about different metal techniques and their possible application to polymer.   In a recent conversation with Nan about her “discovery” of polymer mokume gane, she spoke about studying the images and diagrams in Untracht’s book and then just sitting down to try it.   Since mokume gane is about layers, it seemed well suited to this new medium.  Nan spent a few hours experimenting and was able to create a successful rendition of mokume gane using polymer.  She photographed her results and included it in the book- see page 71.   This was the origin of polymer mokume gane.

Nan’s brief explanation presented two basic approaches for fabrication.  One involved cutting into the top of stacked layers of opaque polymer and then flattening the surface.   The other distorted the flat surface plane by pushing a tool or object, such as a pencil eraser, up into the stack or “loaf” from underneath before shaving layers off the now irregular top.  Little did Nan know how her initial experiments would impact the field.