Mokume-gane was originally developed in Japan, by Denbei Shoami around the 17th century. Searching for a way to strengthen samurai swords, he fell upon a lamination procedure which takes metals of different alloys (an alloy is a combination of metals which when melted together, gives a new metal with different working properties. Stainless steel is an alloy of steel and chromium. Sterling silver is an alloy of silver and copper.) Alloys usually have more desirable properties than the base metals themselves. ie: Sterling silver is much stronger and has better wear resistance than just copper or sterling by themselves.

The master metal smith Denbei Shoami took alloying a step further. He found that when different metal alloys are laminated together, the resulting new "metal sandwich", comprised of many thin layers of varying metals, had much more strength and flexibility than any one of the original metals by themselves (Today lamination of woods is common in the building industry for making structurable beam supports for the same reasons; Strength and flexibility)

This one single "invention" gave the Japanese a decided advantage against their enemies, and also led to the finest sword decorations in the world. The laminated metal, when hammered, forged, and filed, took on a new "life". The exposed layers of different metal colors appeared as a wood grain, beautiful as Nature herself would have created.

In its simplest form, visualize taking an onion and slicing off a small piece from its side. The layers of the onion have a definite circular pattern, varying in width - a bullseye effect with rings of varying size. This same onion cut across the top will reveal another pattern with rings of similar size. Sandwiching layers could produce delicate, intricate patterning. Quartering the onion, turning the "grain" rings in different directions, and (if you could) reassembling the pieces, would result in quite a different pattern in the "slice" and every slice would reveal a slightly or sometimes dramatically new pattern. A diagonal cut might now produce rings and long striations, or no rings and definite right angle patterns, totally different than the original ring patterns.

If one thought out the layering of different thicknesses and colors of metal, changed the direction of the "grain", hammered low and high areas to be filed, shaped and forged, infinite patterns with some control as to their content emerges. Beautiful geometric designs.

So in what was obviously an attempt to forge a "better sword" in the seventeenth century, much like the layers of Mokume-gane itself, a whole different pattern emerges. That of beautiful, intricate designs which could be applied (at least in thought) to many areas of artistic endeavors. The woodworker sanding to expose a certain pattern in the grain. The painter, layering different colours on the canvas and then sanding or scraping away selected areas, exposing a "new", somewhat random and chaotic design in the paint.

And in the metal arts, having such working properties as strength and durability, along with undeniable beauty, is a little bit of heaven.



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