Raised Vessel by Norio Tamagawa. Copper, silver and shakudo.

Raised Vessel by Norio Tamagawa. Copper, silver and shakudo.


THE MYTH OF JAPANESE solder bonded mokume

Armed with their newly acquired knowledge of diffusion-welded mokume gane, the Pijanowskis came back to America to continue their pioneering work in the field. This, however was not the first time the technique had been investigated by western metal scholars. As mentioned in the previous section, Roberts-Austen had made a study of Japanese metal techniques, (including mokume gane) Japanese alloys and patinas. Mention is made of mokume earlier still by Raphael Pumpelly in 1866 in the American Journal of Science. In “Notes on Japanese Alloys” he states:

“Beautiful damask work is produced by soldering together, one over the other in alternate order, thirty or forty sheets of gold, shakudo, silver, rose copper and gin shibuichi…”

Note that Pumpelly writes, “soldered” when describing the way the layers were laminated together. Roberts-Austen also assumes that the layers in mokume must have been soldered together, understandably so, there being little or no history of diffusion bonding for decorative purposes in the West. It may have been that, when these authors closely examined pieces of mokume, they mistakenly identified the thin eutectic alloy layer that forms between the two parent metals, as a layer of solder. Nonetheless, Roberts-Austen reports, this did not stop Mr. Alfred Gilbert A.R.A., from “employing it in the exquisite repoussé metal work which he alone can produce.” Apparently, among other items, Gilbert used the technique to produce the central link of the “Chain of Offices” for the Mayor of Preston, Lancashire in 1888. Robert Von Neumann in his modern book, The Design and Creation of Jewelry, also speaks in terms of Japanese solder-bonded mokume. Incidentally, it was this 1961 book which first informed and inspired many Western jewelers, including the Pijanowskis.

There is no evidence that the joining of layers in Japanese mokume has ever been achieved with the aid of solder. However, there are indications that some copper alloys may have been bonded together by the use of an extremely thin layer of silver. Upon firing, this layer would form a copper/silver eutectic which would liquefy and consequently bond the layers together. Maintaining the firing temperature beyond this point would diffuse the silver away from the bond interface and allow it to essentially disappear. The same technique, known as Transient Liquid Phase Bonding, is used by industry today for the joining of heat-resistant alloys like nickel and cobalt-based superalloys.

Brooch by Hiroko Sato Pijanowski and Eugene Pijanowski. 14K yellow, red, and white gold with black jade.

Brooch by Hiroko Sato Pijanowski and Eugene Pijanowski. 14K yellow, red, and white gold with black jade.

The only historical bonding technique developed independently in the West, which is similar to mokume gane, is known as Sheffield Plate. The technique was discovered in 1743 by cutler Thomas Boulsover. Whether by “accident or intelligent search,” scholars cannot say, but it is certain that his discovery was put to profitable use.

Sheffield plate was made in large quantities for over a century by binding sheets of silver to 1 1/2 inch-thick ingot of copper, bronze or nickel-silver and then fusing it in a coke furnace. The ingot was carefully watched until it began to “weep,” (an indication that a liquid eutectic of the copper and silver had formed) and bonding was complete. It was then beaten, or in later days rolled, into sheet, to be used for everything from candlestick holders to teapots. While the joining of the metals in Sheffield Plate is very similar to mokume, it is important to note that this was done for the sole aim of economizing on the use of silver. Great pains were taken in the manufacturing and design of Sheffield Plate articles to make sure the inner copper core was not visible in the finished piece. In contrast, mokume gane was specifically used to fully exploit the visual patterning made possible by the use of a multi-metal laminate.

Now back to the 1970s! After the Pijanowskis returned from Japan they continued their exploration of the traditional technique. They shared this information freely through many articles in trade magazines, as well as presented workshops on the process in the United States, Europe and Australia. They directed research with their own students at the University of Michigan, and also with students in the graduate program of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. These students, under the tutelage of professors Brent Kington and Richard Mawdsley, conducted research on all aspects of the making of diffusion-bonded mokume.

Extensive experiments with Japanese alloys, firing and patterning techniques were among their most notable contributions. Probably the single most important advancement to come out of this work, credited to Marvin Jensen, was the development of bolted torque-plates that replaced the binding wire that had been used up until that time. As the dissemination of information continued, exploration into the technique and the science of mokume advanced. In the 1980s, Steven Kretchmer and Eugene Pijanowski began laminating colored golds, and by doing so opened a whole new arena for the application of mokume.

Much work has continued from there, with new metal combinations, greater understanding of metallurgy, and technological advancements in the manufacture of mokume such as digital atmospherically controlled kilns. All these things, and more, combine to make now, the 21st century, the most exciting time in history to be making mokume.



Probably the most intriguing story I turned up in my research for this book, has to do with the piece of metal shown here. The photos were sent to me courtesy of the International UFO Museum and Research Center (IUFOMRC), located in Roswell, New Mexico. Max Littell of IUFOMRC writes:

“The only thing we know, is that it was allegedly picked up at the (Roswell) crash site and it was framed and given to us… we let a little snippet be sent to Los Alamos (and) received the initial report a few days later.”

The report and photos revealed the metal (only 15 thousandths of an inch thick) was comprised of 19 layers of alternating silver and copper. Apparently this was proof enough of alien origin for IUFOMRC, and the “artifact” was moved by armored car and put under lock and key in the Roswell police department.

Then, in 1996, a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal wrote a story crediting the origin of the piece to Utah metalsmith Randy Fullbright. I later spoke to Randy by phone and asked him about it.

“A friend and I were hanging out in my studio one night, when just for fun I took a piece of mokume and folded it up and ran it through my rolling mill … I gave it to my friend and he gave it to someone else and eventually it turned up in Roswell as a piece of a spaceship.”

When asked what he thought of his most notorious piece of work being credited to alien origin, Randy replied:

An edge view of the piece at 200 X. Los Alamos National Laboratories.

An edge view of the piece at 200 X. Los Alamos National Laboratories.

“It scared the hell out of me. As soon as word got out, I had every weirdo on the planet calling me. A film crew from Japan even flew over to interview me … It was pretty goofy.”

Later I talked to Mr. Littell and asked him about the claim of the mokume being made by human hands. His response:

“We don’t use that term, that metal is used to make jewelry, not ours, with 19 layers … I don’t care what anyone says, this is not just plain vanilla!”

The piece remains on display at the museum.


Stay tuned. Updates to this section will follow shortly.

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