Looking at silver horizons: adventures in British and Japanese silversmithing

A shared cultural and artistic exchange between Japanese and British silversmiths has forged a remarkable and unmistakable tradition of excellence. Eleni Bide explains why.

Crossing a border has not been an easy thing to do in recent times. But while our physical travel has been restricted, the creative forces released by stepping over boundaries can still take us on an adventure.

The continuing dialogue between Japanese and European silversmithing is a powerful example of this. In the UK, Japanese metalsmithing might bring to mind a wealth of complex techniques used to create stunning effects: the layered colours of mokume gane (meaning wood grain metal, where several layers of metal are fused together to create a patterned surface) or the subtle tones created by alloys such as shibuichi ( ‘one fourth’ in Japanese, indicating one part silver to three parts copper) or kuromido (99% copper alloy). According to Katie Jones, whose experience of representing Japanese decorative artists in the UK spans three decades, many of these techniques were originally used in the production of weaponry. They have no European equivalent, and their visual impact has been admired (and consumed) by people in the West since the 19th century.

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But the differences between Japanese and British silversmithing are more than skin-deep. Exploring them has shaped the work of many Japanese craftspeople who have come to the UK to study and practice. Yusuke Yamamoto creates silver inspired by his surroundings in his North Wales workshop, but he discovered metalsmithing whilst studying at Tokyo’s Musashino Art University. The more subtle differences in techniques – from the direction hammering to the type of solder – are things he has had to navigate, but which give him greater choice in how he works. Shinta Nakajima, who received an award from the Goldsmiths’ Craft and Design Council in 2019, is also able to draw on tools and processes from east and west. He uses a European chasing hammer, which is “a good shape to grip” with short Japanese chisels for better control.

i Yusuke Yamamoto demonstrating silversmithing techniques © Paul Read

Contrasting attitudes to silver as a material is another boundary to cross. The importance traditionally placed on the purity of silver and its intrinsic value in Britain is embodied by the stamping of a hallmark onto the surface of a piece, often so prominently it becomes a part of the design. This emphasis contrasts with a much greater focus on colour and a different kind of preciousness found in alloys like kuromido. Shinta embraces the opportunity to explore one metal in depth through his UK connections, but bringing the unfamiliar to UK audiences is another option.

i Shinta Nakajima in his studio.

It’s certainly something familiar to Wayne Meeten, who has made the journey in the other direction, initially travelling to Japan to learn more about mokume gane following his UK postgraduate studies in silversmithing (he has now come full circle, lecturing at Nagaoka Institute of Design in 2019). Over the years Wayne learnt to speak Japanese and became expert in range of techniques from figures such as Masanobu Kitoh and Norio Tamagawa, a ‘National Living Treasure’. For him, the philosophy behind their approach informs the way the techniques are used and is just as important. Wayne remembers hoovering the workshop each morning during his time with Kitoh and cleaning the silver with fresh white towels – indications of a contemplative quest for excellence. When Wayne asked why he didn’t just use a rag, Kitoh replied, “would you use one for yourself?” “That respect for the piece had a big impact on me,” Wayne remembers.

i 'Dance in the Night Sky' silver vase by Wayne Meeten © Richard Valencia

Katie Jones also appreciates the emphasis on “persistence and perfection” found in Japan, which starts in how metalsmithing is taught. This is something that rings true for Junko Mori. Born in Yokohama and now living in North Wales, she travelled to the UK early in her career, her previous training in Japan having emphasised the careful mastering of craft techniques in blacksmithing.  Her motivation for making the journey was partly to seek a creative contrast to this. Junko studied at Camberwell College of Arts, where she found a much greater emphasis on conceptual work and idea development rather than the finished product – she remembers her amazement at being told she didn’t have to actually finish a piece of work! The high value on emotion and even ‘oddness’ in British silversmithing was an exciting challenge. Yusuke notices this too: Japanese universities usually focus on “basic technique at first then concept and design,” but the process is often reversed in the UK.

i Yunko Mori in her studio © Johnny Magee

For Junko, the freedom and experimental possibilities of working across traditions is liberating, and appeals to her desire to “look for something which doesn’t exist” when she creates. This sense of expanded possibilities built on learning from both cultures is shared by all the craftspeople interviewed: Yusuke imagines the techniques “piling up on each other,” giving him a technical and imaginative springboard.

The freedom and experimental possibilities of working across traditions is liberating.

Both Yusuke and Shinta’s decisions to come to the UK were influenced by the silversmith Hiroshi Suzuki, who, like Junko, is represented by the influential Adrian Sassoon gallery. Living and working in the UK for 15 years, he was able to view both cultures from the inside out, enabling him to “push the boundaries in order to find my own way and my own individually”. Also a graduate of Musashino Art University, before studying at the Royal College of Art in London, Hiroshi became a professor of Metalwork, Goldsmithing, Silversmithing and Jewellery at Musashino in 2009, succeeding his former teacher. Now internationally acclaimed in his own right, he continues to use this hybridity to break boundaries through his own work and teaching, introducing students to both Japanese and British approaches and the concept that “real experience is always the best teacher”.

i Vases by Hiroshi Suzuki

The final word goes to Junko, who observes that little things, such as the ability (or not) to ignore a broken tap can reveal a lot about the big intellectual differences between Japanese and British metalsmithing: a willingness to overlook mess in pursuit of the big picture, or cultivate an idea through the pursuit of perfection. Junko says: “I can cherry-pick the best elements of both, and I’m not constrained by either cultural heritage.” This gives hope as we wait for our horizons to broaden again: that dripping tap in the kitchen could be the start of a new creative adventure.

 


Author: Eleni Bide| Photo Credit: Laurence Rundell, Shinta Nakajima, Richard Valencia, Paul Read, Johnny Magee, Sylvain Deleu | With thanks to Adrian Sassoon Gallery

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