Komai metal inlay jewellery

The history and production of metal inlay in Japan.

Metal inlay jewellery is created through a process called damascening. It involves inlaying a steel ground with thin threads of gold and silver. The ground is then sealed through either oxidisation or via use of lacquer.

The Japanese term for damascene work is zogan (象嵌). The latter encompasses not just metal inlay, but can also describe other inlay techniques. One such example is Gohon Mishima ware, which refers to a type of pottery that is decorated via an inlay technique. In the case of Mishima ware, the material used as both a ground and inlay is clay. Another example is Shibayama inlay (Shibayama zogan), which describes lacquer inlayed with shell, coral, tortoiseshell and ivory.

Komai goods

The jewellery and small items we are displaying on this page, are largely so-called Komai goods, produced by the Komai family or their firm.

Historically following the development of the Komai family’s craft, gives us an interesting insight into the development of Japanese art as a whole. This family had produced metal inlay items for generations, well before the Komai firm was founded in 1841, but these items initially took the shape of sword furniture for the Samurai. Sword fittings could be very ornate and personal in design and required a high degree of skill to produce. Due to various changes in Japanese politics over time, Otojiro Komai eventually transitioned from creating sword furniture to other items, using the same technique.

The emergence of metal inlay techniques

Craftmanship commissioned by the Samurai class was prevalent during a very particular, if long, period of time in Japanese history: the Edo period. It began with the unification of Japanese feudal lords under the Tokugawa government around 1603, which calmed the constant warring factions and allowed for the arts to flourish. Among these artistic disciplines were pottery, metal work and woodblock printing.

The Edo period continued for roughly 250 years, coming to an end in 1868. At this point in time, the isolationist government of the Edo period was replaced by the new governing system of the Meiji period.

The Meiji period brought many cultural changes to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West, as well as structural changes to the government, with it. What most critically impacted the arts, was the new ruling outlawing the carrying of swords by samurai. This ruling suddenly put sword smiths and sword furniture artisans into a tight spot, as they lost most of their clientele.

Luckily, these sword smithing and metalworking skills could be used to produce a variety of items. Upon realising this, craftsmen started making various every-day metal objects that featured inlays. Among these objects are vases, mirrors, cigarette/tobacco cases, make-up cases, cufflinks and jewellery.

Today, these objects can be found in different countries, while a few remain in Japan. The reason the majority of them is abroad is that they were made for export and take the shape of distinctly Western items, as you can tell if you pay close attention to the list above. Cigarette cases, make-up cases, mirrors, vases and jewellery had a vastly different shape in Japan and cufflinks largely didn’t exist, because there was nowhere to fasten them on traditional clothing.

In this way, the Meiji period meant both lost and new-found opportunities for smiths, as this kind of international trade only became possible once Japan opened its borders. The Komai family then participated in several international expositions and gained renown and recognition for their craft.

The process of creating metal inlay:

  1. Double-hatch lines are cut into a steel ground.
  2. The design to be created is drawn on paper and is then transferred onto the steel ground with the help of a fine pin.
  3. Gold or silver wires are hammered into the surface of the steel ground and the entire piece is baked on a fire around 30 times. Afterwards, the lacquer is rubbed and polished off with a steel stick. Another finish can be created via oxidisation: The steel ground is oxidised with a chemical instead of lacquered over.
  4. Sometimes, the lines created by the wires are engraved to give the design the desired look.

Inro: a functional art

Contact us to find out about our current selection of inro.

Inro are small containers that could be roughly described as the handbags or pouches of ancient Japan. They had both practical and esthetical value. Though they usually were square, round or polygonal in shape, a variety of special animal shapes also exist. Over time, these containers came to be extremely luxurious and extravagantly decorated gadgets.

Consisting of a few compartments, the containers are joined by a silk string running through hollowed out channels on both sides of the object. As Japanese clothes (kimono) did not have pockets, inro became a substitute for the latter.

Kimono are fastened with a sash that sits at waist level, which was where an inro would be hung from. The inro was suspended at the bottom of the sash, a netsuke securing it in place, while an ojime bead at the top of the inro protected the container from opening accidentally. Initially worn by men, they filtered into female fashion over time.

Inro were perfect for insulating items such as medicine against Japan’s particularly humid and hot climate, because they were largely made of wood and leather coated with lacquer, which is a material that is known for its preservative qualities. Occasionally, ivory, paper, cloth or ceramics were used as additional materials to make these cases.

Lavishly decorated with various types of lacquer work and sometimes supplemented with inlays of ivory, mother of pearl and coral, an inro could be a very personal item. Even today, it has the potential to reveal a lot about the person that it belonged to. While the first motifs that were used for the decoration of inro reference ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints and paintings), the number of inspirations and designs grew countless, only limited by the owner’s circumstances and the artist’s imagination.

Woodblock printing – an overview

Many of the visitors who come to the Japanese Gallery Kensington are surprised to hear that all of our stock consists of original artwork and that the bulk of it is antique. Considering that we mostly carry works on paper, this is not surprising.

Due to the materials that are used to produce woodblock prints, they are much more durable and longer-lasting than artwork that is printed on Western paper. The materials used in the production also contribute to the uniqueness of these already hand-printed items.

Here is a summary of the materials that were used by master printers in the past and that continue to be used by contemporary woodblock print artists today with minor variations due to advancing time:

  • Japanese washi paper (mulberry tree paper)
  • A separate carved cherry woodblock for each colour to be printed
  • A barren. A round disc with a handle that is used to press the paper to the woodblock to facilitate the colour transfer
  • Nori (rice glue)
  • Powdered pigment
  • Water

The paper needs to be damp in order for the printing to happen correctly and the pigment needs to be mixed with nori glue and water. The resulting liquid colour is spread on the block of wood, onto which the damp paper is then pressed.

Next, the barren needs to be moved across the paper in circular motion with regular pressure. This takes a surprising amount of strength to carry out properly. Once the printing is done, the paper can carefully be detached from the block of wood and the process can be repeated with the next carved woodblock and corresponding colour. This goes on until the print is completed and can be left to dry.

Art as literature, literature as art

Balance and beauty

Particularly in the West, we are always interested in the dichotomy of Japanese culture, how it can aspire perfection and celebrate imperfections all at once. This same attitude can be perceived in calligraphy. While it resembles regular writing in that you draw a character top to bottom and left to right, taking care to make certain parts larger than others, another part of Japanese calligraphy is to even out the gaps between strokes, angle each part of a character in relation to another and write powerfully or softly, sometimes carefully or messily, according to the word you are depicting or maybe to suit the special paper you are using. The goal is to combine method, personal judgement and inspiration to create something beautiful. Writing becomes art in a way that is different from Western calligraphy.

Nowadays, brush calligraphy is something special even in Japan. There have always been all levels of practitioners of this discipline, but before pens, word processors and printers existed, everything was written using a brush and ink: Epic novels, names on wooden boards hung on houses, letters, price tags, notes and anything else you can think of.

A quick note about written Japanese

There are 3 alphabets available.

1. Katakana is arguably the simplest one and
consists of 48 characters. It is reserved for foreign words and onomatopoeia.

2. Hiragana has the same number of characters as Katakana and is purely
phonetic. The symbols have no meaning of their own. This alphabet is most
widely used and is usually the first to be studied by foreign students.

3. Kanji. This last alphabet consists of roughly 50,000 symbols and was adapted from China a long time ago. A lot of these symbols still resemble the original Chinese characters, but both the pronunciation and attached meaning have changed, the latter less so than the former. Not only are there numerous ways to pronounce any one character, each one also has a variety of meaning.

In calligraphy class, there are rules as to how to lay down the strokes for each of these alphabets, but what I was really interested in was trying my hand at Kanji. Each character can consist of anything between 1 stroke and over 20 strokes and each form is governed by rules of balance, as well as the way you hold your brush.


Lastly, we would like to briefly introduce the tools that are necessary to practice Japanese calligraphy:

  1. A mat made of felt to place atop your table to protect the surface and absorb surplus ink.
  2. A long rectangular weight to place at the top edge of your paper to hold it in place.
  3. Japanese paper. Also called washi paper (和紙) ‘wa’ is often used to indicate that something is traditionally Japanese, whereas ‘shi’ means paper, though you would call the latter ‘kami’ in conversation.
  4. A calligraphy brush. They have a particular pointed shape.
  5. Traditionally ink would come in a compressed dry block that would need to be rubbed in water in a circular motion to produce liquid ink. The contemporary version comes pre-prepared in a plastic container.
  6. An ink stone. It can hold a small amount of ink and is used to control how much ink the brush absorbs.
  7. A case (suzuribako) for all of these tools, minus the paper, which is kept separately.

The calligraphy cases (suzuribako) our gallery carries are all beautifully decorated antique lacquer boxes.