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Japanese Silver: Trading over time

Although Japanese silver has been used in Japan internally since the earliest periods of Japan’s history, the precious metal became most prominent in terms of external trade and industry in the 16th-18th centuries. After having imported silver from China until this time, the dynamic shifted in this era with China importing Japanese silver in exchange for their coveted silks.

General History of Silver in Japan

In the 16th and 17th centuries Japan engaged in maritime trade on a large scale for the first time. Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Portugal, turned to Japan for trade. Japanese silver mines would become one of the chief sources for silver in the worldwide market. After William Adams, the English navigator, initiated trade with Japan on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch were given extensive rights to trading with Japan over other European countries. Most Japanese silver trading happened in Nagasaki, a coastal city on the northwestern island of Kyushu. Initially, Japan was keen to exchange their silver for the desirable silk which China was famous for producing. Originally China was the main exporter of silver in the East, but when their mines started to deplete this title shifted to Japan, with China ironically becoming one of the biggest procurers of Japanese silver. By the 17th century, Japan was exporting so much of the precious Japanese silver that the Tokugawa Shogunate tried many different methods to minimize this trade. Most of these ventures backfired, particularly the attempt to abolish the itowappu silk monopoly. In 1668 the trading of silver externally was banned completely. However, although the Shogunate successfully halted exportation by the 1760s, the silver mines of Japan were already highly depleted.  

Iwami Ginzan

Iwami Ginzan was the largest Japanese silver mine in the whole of Japan and was in operation for nearly four hundred years, from 1526-1923. Situated in the Iwami province, this site was highly contested and has been owned by different factions and families over the centuries. Iwami Ginzan opened under the stewardship of ‘Bakufu’, the then government, and was later managed by the infamous Fujita Company in the Meiji and Taisho eras. Between the 16th and 17th centuries this Japanese silver mine could produce as much as 150 tons of Japanese silver a year due to imported technology. The Japanese refined a technique imported from Korea and China called haifuki-ho and this was first used in Iwami Ginzan. This process involved adding lead to the Japanese silver ore and blowing hot air into the mixture to melt them together. Excavations of the site started in 1993 and since its closure in 1923 no documents of the actual management of Iwami Ginzan have been found, though a lot can be learned through records of political history. Iwami Ginzan became a national heritage site in 2007.

Kyoto and Silver

Ginkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s most famous temples. It is easy to confuse this pavilion with Kinkau-ji, which is the more renowned of the two. Kin in Japanese means gold, and Gin is the word for silver. Kinkaku-ji was originally the home of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and was made into a complex that was then converted into a Zen Buddhist temple on his request after his death. The pavilion has had to be repaired twice due to fires, but the roof is still made from pure gold-leaf. The building of Ginkaku-ji was initiated by Ashikaga Yoshimasa but the Japanese silver leaf covering that he desired to top the temple with was not achieved before his death and has still never been applied, even in renovations. Instead there is lacquer on the roof which gives off a Japanese silver sheen, which still creates a stunning sight. Despite the fact that actual Japanese silver is not used, this temple is still known as Ginkakuji, the temple of silver, and is a popular monument in Kyoto. In terms of real silver trade in Kyoto, the main use in tradition in this city has been in inlay, which we have discussed in a previous blog. Kyoto has always used silver for many of their crafts and designs but was never known as a silver-producing region. However, Japanese silver is an important aspect of trade, featuring heavily in many traditional art forms in the city.

Silver on Atelier Japan

Used particularly in inlay design, Atelier Japan features many different products that are made from Japanese silver, or use the precious metal in their designs. Kazariya-Ryo produce pure silverware in a variety of different objects, and Zinlay provide our stunning inlay items, which use both Japanese silver and gold, all available to purchase on Atelier Japan.

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Jewellery and Japan

Jewellery as a concept in Japan traditionally differed greatly from Western perspectives. Originally, the term ‘jewellery’ was associated with practical objects, like swords or combs, to describe the intricate designs and decoration on these items. Since then, the Japanese tradition of using these embellishments on everyday items has transitioned to use on jewellery as we know it today.

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The Traditional Use of Jewellery

Damascening is a traditional form of Japanese art that first began by being used on sword-hilts. Sword decoration was known as souken kanagu and, interestingly, was one of the first forms of jewellery in Japan. The designs chosen for the sword hilts and other items often reflected nature and other quintessentially Japanese designs such as Sakura, pagodas and mountains. Popular materials used in each design were agate, coral and ivory, particularly for items like combs. Another type of ‘jewellery’ traditionally used in Japan was Inro, small handcrafted boxes or cases worn by men to carry their personal belongings, much like the modern day wallet. Ojimi was a carved bead that was used to keep the boxes closed. In terms of jewellery resembling anything close to what we consider it to be today, Magatama is the earliest recorded object that can be called ‘jewellery’. This was a comma-shaped figure made from jade originally and later glass. Magatama were worn on a chain or thread as a necklace by men from about 1,000 BCE through to the 6th century CE. Whilst jewellery as decoration similar to Western standards became popular amongst geisha and courtesans in the Edo period (1603-1868), it wasn’t until after 1868 that it became fashionable amongst all classes of women, following Western influence.

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When asked to explain what Japanese jewellery looks like, what might come to mind other than pearls which are now associated with this country, is the traditional Kanzashi hairpin. This ornament was first worn some time in the Jomon era (c.10,000BCE-300CE) as a way for women to keep their hair neat. During this time, a thin stick or rod was thought to possess powers of warding off evil spirits, and so these hairpins were considered important for protection. This symbolism also suggests that Kanzashi were initially worn as good luck charms rather than ornaments, fitting in with the concept of Japanese jewellery traditionally needing to have use. By the Edo period (1603-1868), these hairpins became very fashionable and popular amongst ladies. Common types of these hair pieces include the Tsumami Kanzashi, which is made of silk and combines different colours. Another popular variety is the Hana Kanzashi; these are predominantly made in Kyoto as they are used by maiko (trainee geisha) and are designed with a different theme for every month.

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Japanese Shakudo

Shakudo refers to a low gold content alloy that is used in jewellery and ornaments and was originally employed to embellish katana fittings. This included the tsuba (guard at the end of the grip) and Shakudo was used as the base for inlays and accompanying patinas. After the samurai era, this effect was expanded into a layering process that made a mixed metal laminate (mokume-gare). Currently, the art of Shakuda can incorporate any damascened ornament or piece of jewellery. Today’s designs often use gold and copper to achieve the trademark blue or purplish hue associated with this effect.

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Jewellery After Westernisation of Japan

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan undertook major global exploration, opening up to the rest of the world for the first time. In this period, Western influence also swept through Japan, changing many things including fashion. Jewellery common in Western cultures such as necklaces, rings and bracelets started to infiltrate the accessory market in Japan. The techniques traditionally used for the embellishments on practical items were modified for these new kinds of jewellery that were now becoming popular amongst Japanese women. It would also soon come about that Kokichi Mikimoto would create the cultured pearl and establish a monopoly on the pearl market after he saw how popular Western-style jewellery was. In terms of nation-wide mass production, the button was an item that became popular to embellish with original Japanese techniques. The modification of buttons in this way emerged with the introduction of the Western-style military uniform after 1868, where buttons were being used on a large scale for the first time. The original Japanese spins on these Western products were highly popular in the West, sparking huge trade deals between Japan and the rest of the world. Popular items for Japanese embellishment included watch chains and clock cases.

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Jewellery on Atelier Japan

Atelier Japan showcases many different kinds of stunning jewellery that draw on the old tradition of Japanese culture and embrace the new. Every piece has been carefully and skilfully crafted by our makers, Zinlay, Kazariya-Ryo and Karafuru.

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Japanese Inlay

Handmade Japanese Earrings
Damascene, or Japanese Inlay, is the handcrafted jewellery design made using parts of gold and silver embedded into a base material such as metal. Toledo in Spain is well known for its steel, however, this is not the only city that is currently still making handcrafted damascene jewels. Kyoto in Japan also has a rich and cultural history for it. History says that the Damascene was practised first by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, but it was developed into a high art by the people in Damascus. Before Christ, at least more than 2000 years ago the Moors were close to conquering the entire peninsula of what used to be Spain and brought the Damascene artwork with them so that they could introduce it into Spain and perhaps other Catholic countries. Even before that, the Japanese brought the whole idea of Damascene to Japan from Damascus.
Nowadays it seems like Damascene artwork has disappeared from the Middle East as there is no prominent maker located in that part of the globe. During the Renaissance and Baroque in the years of 1500 to 1750, damascene evolved as an accessory for jewellery and silverware. At this period of time, the large number of cabinets, coffins and jewellery boxes were in high demand, therefore, the Toledo damascene, in particular, became strong during the 19th century. Inlay is one of Japan’s oldest traditional crafts and has a history of over 1000 years. Kyoto’s distinct style of Inlay stands out from the rest as the materials that are used are only the highest quality silver and pure gold. They can be inlayed into boxes creating delicate works of art with beautiful silver and gold detail on jet-black surfaces. The Muromachi period started in the early 14th century until the Edo Period which ended late 19th century, these Kyoto Damascenes were popularly used as ornaments on traditional Japanese swords and armour. More recently, other delicate works such as the damascenes on vase’s became renowned to be produced overseas.
Due to the implementation of the Decree Order in 1876, demands on Damascene for armour had become less. Under the guidance of the new government, it began to deal with new art decorations and intricate accessories. After officially appearing at the Paris World Exhibition in 1878, the damascene was highly appreciated in Europe as many products exported to this part of the world. One of the representative makers, Otojiro Komai, in the Meiji era from 1842 to 1917 became very popular and known to represent a brand called “Komai” in the West of Japan. Inlay originated in Damascus in Syria more than 2,000 years ago and is said to have been transmitted to Japan in the Asuka period, which is the 6th to the 7th centuries. In the Heian period, from the late 8th-12th century, the foundation of technology was established, and during the Edo period, 17th-19th centuries, craftsmen who make swords and armours produced an excellent inlay.
Today in Damascene is still ongoing with the production of these beautiful products hundreds of years later in Kyoto. The two products featured below demonstrate the beauty of this traditional artform still around today, all handmade and available in our online store. 
Handmade Japanese NecklaceHandmade Japanese Tie PinHandmade Japanese Necklace