The art of the enameler throughout the ages has ever proved to be a
subject of interest to connoisseurs and collectors. While learned
monographs in many languages have been written on the fascinating
subject of European enamels, less appears to have been written
concerning those of Asia and particularly those of China and Japan. The
real collector, as distinguished from the mere gatherer or hoarder of
art objects, finds a great part of his pleasure in acquainting himself
with the processes of manufacture as well as with the history of the
things he collects. It is this acquaintanceship with the minutiæ of a
subject that enables one to collect with judgment.
The basis of all enamels is the application of fusible silicate or
glass, colored with metallic oxides, all upon a metal ground. The
varieties of enamels have already been described at length in the
chapter on European enamels, but it will be convenient to summarize the
processes here as they apply to Oriental as well as to Occidental
In cloisonné enamel-work a metal base–of gold, silver, copper, or some
other metal–has its design traced upon it by means of thin metal wires
or strips soldered to the base and forming a number of divisions. These,
when filled with the colored silicate (subjected to amalgamation by
heat, and afterward polished) produce a beautiful patterned surface, the
design of which appears traced in metal filaments. The Byzantine and the
Greek enamelers executed their cloisonné enamels in gold, as likewise
did the Anglo-Saxons, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Japanese in
their finest work.
In the plique à jour enamels we find what is really a variety of
cloisonné rather than a class, as the plique à jour is cloisonné
unbacked by a metal ground but much like a leaded stained-glass window
in miniature. That is, if one holds a piece of plique à jour work to the
light he will find it allows the light to pass through, whence its name.
Champlevé enamel resembles cloisonné, but its pattern, instead of being
traced by cloisons soldered on a metal base, is scooped out by a sort of
deep engraving upon the metal base, these depressions being filled up
with enamel, which is fired and then polished. The Celts, the Persians,
and the enamelers of India worked in this manner.
Respoussé enamel is, one may say, a variety of champlevé, or at least so
closely akin to it that it is seldom considered as composing a class by
itself, though I think it should be. In such enamel-work the design is
wrought upon the metal base, not with cloisons as in cloisonné, nor by
scooping out by a graver, as in true champlevé. Instead, the design is
worked upon the metal by hammering out–respoussé–the depressions to be
filled with the enamel. This is then fired and polished, as all enamel
of any class has to be. Some of the enamels of India are such fine
examples of work of this sort that they have passed as true champlevé.
Finally, we come to the _painted_ enamels, such as those of Limoges. In
the earliest examples of the painted class one finds the design applied
directly to the metal base, grain by grain and layer by layer, in such a
manner that the various fusings and glazings produce the results one
finds in the marvelous old Limoges enamels; while in later work the
enamel is fused upon the metal base, the designs being painted (in some
instances printed) on the enamel.
This brief survey of the characteristics of the different classes of old
enamels will the better enable the collector to confine his attention
for the moment to the subject of cloisonné enamels, and in particular to
those of China and Japan. Of late years the cloisonné enamels of these
countries have been extensively exported, more especially to America.
Many of these modern examples are very beautiful, some of them very
trashy, and none of them comparable in beauty with early Chinese work,
though, from a technical point of view and an individuality of their
own, I fancy some of the modern specimens would have made the
seventeenth-century enamel-workers of China rub their eyes in
wonderment. This great and difficult art is surely one of the glories of
Chinese craftsmanship. One might not think that the outlook for
collecting these old enamels in America very encouraging. Nevertheless
it is a line of collecting that has not been overdone, and genuine old
objects are to be found, here and there, by those who know them when
they see them.
As color is the very soul of enamel, the rich, soft colors of the early
Chinese work help to distinguish it. This is especially true of the
varied and beautiful blues employed by the Chinese enamelers.
Occasionally the Chinese employed both cloisonné and champlevé in the
same piece as certain pieces of the Ch’ien Lung period (1736-1796) show.
In genuine old pieces it often happens that corrosion has made its
appearance around the cloisons. While the early history of Chinese
cloisonné is lost to us, we know it to have been in favor in the early
fifteenth century, as a vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum attests.
Not only for its blues is Chinese cloisonné noted, but it possesses
characteristic reds, lilacs, violets, pinks, greens, and orange as well.
The Chinese enameler’s palette was medieval in its selection. The blues
of turquoise and of lapis lazuli were great favorites likewise. A
sang-de-bœuf and a sealing-wax red, opaque in quality, were further
employed. In fact, the Chinese enamelers employed the colors of the
early European cloisonné workers. Their whites, however, were always
inferior and in early work exhibit air-hole pit marks.
The collector will understand from this how necessary it is for him to
give careful attention to the subject of color in determining the early
enamels. The metals employed by the cloisonné-workers should also be
studied. Where gold was used it had to be fine gold, as alloys would not
withstand the heat of the enameler’s furnace. Enamel does not hold so
well to silver as to gold or copper. Then there is the distinctive
polish of the earlier enamels. These were polished by hand, in
consequence of which their surfaces did not present the mirror-like
polish which modern contemporary cloisonné enamels exhibit. The surfaces
of the old pieces is more like that of an egg-shell. Again, few of the
antique cloisonné enamels show any transparency, a fact probably due to
the oxide of tin in the solder. In recent work the cloisons have, in
many instances, been fastened to the metal bases by means of a paste
instead of by the soldering method–surely a shifty mode, and one
marking the decline of the true excellence of the ancient art.
Rudyard Kipling’s “From Sea to Sea” gives us a careful account of the
art of enameling as he saw it practised by the _minakari_ or enamelers
of Kyōto. This account is worth looking up. While the work described by
Kipling was that of the modern Japanese craftsmen of some thirty years
ago, the process was the same as practised in earlier times not only in
Japan but likewise in China, and everywhere that cloisonné enamel has
been made. The process in use to-day follows the same tradition.
The Koreans probably acquired the art of cloisonné from the Chinese, and
the Japanese from the Koreans (perhaps not before the fifteenth
century). Captain Brinkley says: “One thing is certain, that until the
nineteenth century enamels were employed by Japanese decorators for
accessory purposes only on wood and porcelain as well as on metal. No
such things as vases, plaques or bowls having their surface covered with
enamel in either style.” This at once enables the collector to
understand at how late a period, comparatively, cloisonné enamel became
popular in Japan. It is believed that early in the nineteenth century a
Japanese craftsman, Kaji Tsunekechi, produced the first vessel covered
completely with cloisonné in Japan. This was at Nagoya. It won him great
fame and many pupils. The earlier pieces of Japanese cloisonné followed
in pattern, to a great extent, the Chinese enamels, and though they are
somewhat less fine in color, they often excel in technique. Until 1890
the cloisons of Japanese work were soldered to the metal. Since that
date a vegetable gum has often been employed for the purpose. In some
modern work there appears to be no evidence of cloisons whatsoever, but
some of these pieces have hidden cloisons. The Japanese cloisonné
objects are usually enameled on the back or on the inside with blue
enamel Tōkyō, Yokohama, and Kyōto are the main sources of the modern
Thirty years ago Louis Gonse, a French authority, wrote that the
Japanese had done little in cloisonné,
Small objects beautiful to contemplate, exquisite in workmanship,
intrinsically valuable, and at the same time rich in historical
associations have attracted men of all ages. Little wonder it is that
the collector of the objects for art of the Japanese craftsmen finds in
them an ever refreshing delight. The _tsuba_, or sword-guards of Japan,
are famed for their workmanship, beauty of design, and historic
interest, while their rarity is not such as to discourage the collector.
A few years ago, indeed, these remarkable examples of the skill of the
old-time Japanese metal-workers could have been picked up in the
Japanese shops in America and Europe for a song. Though the price has
advanced precipitously, fine specimens of sword-guards may still be had
at far from prohibitive prices, when one considers that almost every
tsuba can be counted a supreme example of the metal-worker’s art. There
are no two genuine Japanese sword-guards precisely alike. Each is
distinctly an original and unique object into whose fashioning has gone
the best effort of those tirelessly patient and conscientious craftsmen
of the Flowery Kingdom.
Feudal Japan has disappeared, and with it the need of the old armorers’
art. Fifty-eight years ago a noted Japanese official sought in vain
throughout Yedo–now Tōkyō–for a countryman who might prove to be
conversant with the English language, a fact that gives one an
intimation of the rapidity with which the old order of things has been
thrown off and the new taken on. It was just forty years ago that an
imperial edict abolished the wearing of swords. The edict was obeyed
without a single known instance of resistance, and the shops of Kyōto,
Tōkyō, and Ozaka dealing in art objects soon bristled with ancient
swords and sword “furniture” from those samurai who a few months before
held their swords as sacred as their persons.
It is clear that, as a result of this edict, a vast number of swords
were brought into the market. Naturally enough, as collectors had not
then discovered the tsuba, countless sword-guards were thrown into the
melting-pot. Later, when European, American, and Japanese connoisseurs
came to rescue the tsuba from oblivion, the native craftsmen, still
possessors of a recent heritage of skill, fell to making sword-guards
for the market. Yet even these late nineteenth-and, one must suspect,
twentieth-century tsuba are often beautiful, ingenious, and interesting
enough to be desirable acquisitions on their own account.
In a land where the regard for the honor of the sword had evolved an
etiquette and almost a religion it is not strange that the art-loving
nation which conceived this regard should have applied its finest
ability to the decoration of the sword accessories, until finally these
became veritable treasure-troves recording the history and traditions of
the country as well as its symbolism and even its physical aspect.
The “furniture” of a Japanese sword consists primarily of the tsuba, or
guard,–a circular or oval (sometimes square and occasionally irregular)
piece of metal, with a triangular aperture to receive the sword-blade.
On each side is a smaller opening to receive the top of each of the two
smaller implements that accompany many of the Japanese swords–the
_kozuka_ or handle of the short dagger, or _kokatana_, and the _kogai_,
a skewer-shaped instrument. After the tsuba or sword-guard come the
smaller ornaments placed one on each side of the hilt to enable the
wielder of the sword to have a firmer grasp of it. These small metal
ornaments are called _menuki_. We find them, too, on the scabbards of
swords, especially on the daggers or _wakizashi_. Of great beauty and
interest are the _kashira_, metal caps fitting the heads of the
sword-handles, secured in place by means of cords laterally placed. The
_fuchi_ are oval rings through which the blade passes; they encircle the
bases of the handles where the blade is secured. The _kurikata_ are
cleats for securing the cords (_sageo_) which held back the warrior’s
sleeve whilst he was fighting. And finally there is the _kojiri_, the
metal endpiece of the scabbard.
There is not one of the ornamental decorations of a Japanese sword that
would not have awakened the admiration and envy of Benvenuto Cellini.
And to think that after the edict of 1877 there were, literally,
millions of them relegated to the rubbish heaps of the Japanese junkmen!
Too few of the menuki escaped being melted up. Theirs is a fascination
difficult to resist; but the tsuba more directly engages our attention
for the present, and the smaller ornaments have been referred to here
only in order that the reader may have some suggestion of their
relationship to the tsuba.
The earliest name of a sword-guard maker to be met with is that of
Mitsutsune (1390), Kaneiye of Fushimi, Umetada, Shigeyoshi (a renowned
swordsmith), Gōtō Yūjō (died 1504), Miochin Nobuiye (1507-1555), Iranken
Yamakichi (1570) and Hoan were all renowned for their tsuba at a later
period. Nobuiye’s work was distinguished for the thin soft iron with a
thick patina, reddish in hue. His tsuba bear traces of the hammer, as do
the tsuba of his followers for a considerable period. To Gōtō Yūjō
(1426-1504) and other members of the Gōtō family Japanese connoisseurs
give preference. A Japanese expert at once recognizes in the Gōtō tsuba
the _iyébori_ or style of the family whose genius produced them.
The work on those sword-guards whose surface is punched into a texture
of small dots until it resembles fish roe is called _nanakoji_, and for
tsuba so finished the Gōtō family were without rivals. Moslé suggests
that one of the requisites in the Japanese connoisseur’s education is to
recognize the iyébori (personal style) of the first thirteen generations
of the Gōtō!
Piercing, chasing, and, in a few instances, inlaying and damascening
came into the practice of the metal-workers with the advent of the
sixteenth century. Umetada Shigeyoshi, who has been called the “master
of masters,” began the free use of the graver in ornamentation. To him
mainly are due the decorative changes that marked the tsuba which were
made during this period. The close of the sixteenth century brought a
stretch of two hundred and fifty peaceful years after the turbulence
that had shaken Japan until then. Naturally, in the years of war the
sword of the Japanese fighter called for guards practical and tough in
texture, something that would deflect the powerful blow of an opponent.
In the years of peace the tsuba were mainly adapted to court use and for
the adornment of the person. The tsuba-makers of Ōsaka produced marvels
of damascening in gold and silver on iron. The second Kaneiye encrusted
his sword-guards with copper ornament, and Hirata Dōnin introduced the
use of translucent enamels. The pierced work of Kinai of Echizen is
supreme in its elegance of form.
The close of the seventeenth century gave rise to three schools of tsuba
decoration–the Nara School, revolting against the academic style of the
Gōtō, as did the Yokoya School, and the Omori School. In the work of the
masters of all three of these schools, the Gōtō influence may still be
traced, even though these metal-workers tried to get away from it.
The School of Ishiguro, Yedo, of the early part of the nineteenth
century came to be famous for its flat incised work, introducing
colored surfaces. Kano Natsuo may be mentioned as the last tsuba-maker
of distinction. The tsuba of the period between 1840 and 1870 were very
elaborately decorated, and obviously could never have been used for
their professed purpose. However, the collector will wish to acquire
specimens of them, if only as examples of the marvelous handicraft of
the Japanese metal-workers.
Nearly all of the imitations of genuine old tsuba can be detected by
holding the guard on one’s fingertip and striking it sharply with
another piece of metal. The genuine tsuba will emit a bell-like sound,
the cast imitation a dull one. A perfect patina is always to be sought
for in a tsuba.
One of the most important styles of ornamenting metal is _Zogan_, a
process which includes damascening and is sub-divided into: _Honzogan_
work, in which an undercutting retains the hammered-in inlay (if flush
with the surface, this is called _Hirazogan_, and if it is in relief,
_Takazogan_), and _Nunomezogan_ work, which derives its name from a
surface incised to represent linen mesh. The second style of ornamental
working is included under the names _Kebori_ and _Katakiri_. With kebori
work the lines are finely cut, and the word designating this class of
work signifies “hair lines engraved.” Katakiri work produces engraved
lines varying in depth to produce the effect of painting. The Japanese
hold this style in high favor. The third style of ornamental metal-work
is _Nikubori_; work in this style is carved in relief, low relief being
distinguished by the name, _Unsunikubori_, and high relief, _Takabori_.
The final style is _Uchidashi_. This metal-work is repoussé, and is
often to be found in combination with nikobori.
The subject of Japanese metal-work must ever prove one of fascination to
the student or collector, and even a very small collection of tsuba will
serve to cover the general field of representative styles. Like so many
other articles of collection appeal, they combine the two interests of
former utility and present beauty.