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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mokume Gane

I've spent some time recently looking over some other jeweler's blogs and once again had my feelings reinforced about what I don't want my blog to become. Almost universally, they are discussions of a piece recently made, usually with pictures of the work in progress. Now this is all well and good. I'm sure that a lot of people are intrigued by how jewelry is made and it's great self promotion to show what goes into making the items we produce as jewelers. But generally speaking, it's not the direction I like to go in. I prefer to talk about my MOTIVATION for making a piece. I also like to talk about subjects that I think will help my customers buy any piece of jewelry (not just mine). But today I'm going to throw all that out the window and talk about one of the techniques I use to actually make some of my pieces. Why? Because I said I would in my last posting.

Mokume gane is a Japanese metal layering technique that has been used for thousands of years in making both jewelry and ornamental objects. Mokume means woodgrain and gane means metal so the description is woodgrain metal. That is exactly what a lot of it can look like. It used to be that almost all mokume gane work was done with a variety of less expensive metals, copper, silver and a number of oddball alloys that the Japanese had developed. More recently it has been done with precious metals. There are some jewelers who specialize in mokume gane and do some absolutely stunning things with it. They have taken the technique to whole new levels. Using ovens to carefully bond their metals together over long periods of time, they have come up with some new ways of using mokume and a variety of new looks for it. With modern advances in technology, their ability to produce perfect billets of mixed metals to work with is impressive.

However I don't want to spend my entire life doing one process. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I can please so many different types of customers is because I work in a variety of styles. While some of my work is immediately recognizable as mine, a lot of it is just nice jewelry. And that's what I like to do. I'd be bored to tears if all I did was one particular technique. So I leave that for the other jewelers who specialize in it, but I do have a particular mokume that I enjoy making and that I produce routinely.

Basically what you do in mokume gane is create a piece of metal with a large number of layers of different colors of metal and then peel away parts of it to see the layers underneath. I do this by starting with a piece of my special 22k yellow gold mix and a piece of the 18k palladium white gold I use. I've found these two metals fuse together better than some others, given the conditions I'm working in. I then fuse the two layers together using my torch in a process in which I heat the two metals until they are almost liquid and they actually fuse together. Then I cut the piece in half and fuse them again. I do this until I get either 16 layers or 32 layers of metal. This metal is then rolled down (in a mill) until it is fairly thin. I then take a dapping die (a small tool I use with a hammer that has a ball on the end) and punch out a series of rows of holes (they don't go all the way through) in the metal. The piece is then flipped over and ground off on the top. This allows the different layers to show through.

I really enjoy making mokume gane because it involves a lot of torch work (I admit, I have somewhat of a fascination with working with a lot of fire) and it is just generally fun for me to do. It's technically advanced (trying to get the metal to fuse properly with a torch is tricky---most mokume today is produced in controlled ovens), it's always a little different and I can do some neat things with the results.

In the three ring picture only the top ring is mokume gane. That is a 32 layer mix. The earrings are a 16 layer mix.

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