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Mokume-gane

Mokume-gane (often referred to as simply mokume in the jewelry business) is Japanese for "wood-grained metal". First made in 17th century Japan, this metal was used for sword fittings. With the eventual decline in the use of these swords, this metal—actually a collection of layered metals that have been fused together to form a distinctive pattern resembling wood grain—found use in decorative items. Today, the technique is used to create metal plates for jewelry design.

As the price of gold continues to rise, jewelry designers are looking for alternatives to this very precious metal. As a consequence, mokume is seeing a resurgence in popularity, as its layers can be made up of a variety of metals: gold, silver, copper, bronze, nickel, shibuichi (a billon which can be patinated into a range of subtle muted shades of blue or green: its name means "one-fourth" in Japanese and indicates the standard formulation of one part silver to three parts copper), and shakudo (a billon of gold and copper, typically 4% and 96%, respectively).

The mokume sheet is created by soldering or diffusion-bonding the various layers of metal together: the greater the number of layers in the sheet, the finer the resultant texture. The sheet is carved to expose the different metal layers, hammered to an even thickness and reworked to bring out the pattern. Initially a sheet which, in cross section, is simply even layers of different metals, the jewelry designer has many options to choose from to bring out a distinctive pattern: carving, bumping, filing and rerolling in order to expose the thin layers as alternating light and dark concentric patterns, for instance. The initial billon is rolled out into a sheet, then deformed with tools—chisels, drills and dapping tools, for example, to reveal the layers. One common method of patterning the mokume is to dap the metal sheets: this raises bumps on the other side, which are then filed away to varying degrees to reveal the layers in a circular pattern. The metal is then rerolled and the circles remain, either round or stretched out to varying degrees. This patterned sheet is often further patinated (colored by chemical reaction) or etched to create a unique piece of metal for jewelry design.

The process involved in creating mokume sheets is quite complex, and a great knowledge of metal-working is needed. Due in part to increasing demand, prepared mokume sheets can be bought, either prepatterned or unpatterned—giving the jewelry designer the creative free hand. Despite the high level of skill required, the results are unpredictable. Thus, no two pieces are alike, a boon for jewelry designers, who pride themselves on the uniqueness of their creations.