Masters of Mokumé Gané Share Their Secrets
Mokumé gané is one of my favorite metalsmithing techniques. I don’t think I’ll ever create the beautiful patterned metal myself. But the ancient process fascinates me, as do the designs made from the beautiful net result of all that work! The closest I’ll likely ever come to working with mokumé gané will be if I finish the blank I purchased to form into a bangle — a project by Steve Midgett in Lapidary Journal, March 2002.
Mokumé Gané Master: Steve Midgett
In the same issue of Lapidary Journal, Midgett was featured and his work was front and center on the cover. Back then, and maybe still true to this day, using a model was said to be good for selling magazines. We gave it a whirl twice that year, and it was fun to be on the set for both shoots. It was also fun to find ways to get as much jewelry on the models as we could, so you could see the designs and appreciate that this is a jewelry magazine. I have to laugh looking at the cover now. I wonder what the model must’ve thought of us finding ways to add more jewelry to her while also trying to make it look natural. Doesn’t everyone put a brooch in their hair?
She was a true professional, and really — the jewelry is still a stand out. Bravo, Steve — these designs still make me long to own a piece of your work.
The Metals of Mokumé Gané
If you’re unfamiliar with mokumé gané (pronounced moe’-koo-may gah’-nay), as Midgett succinctly puts it in the article, “this is an ancient Japanese metalworking technique developed in feudal Japan by master swordsmiths. The name translates as ‘wood-grain metal,’ referring to the most popular patterns created with this laminated metals technique, which is akin to Damascus steel.”
Here is more from the article about Steve:
“There are four groups of metals used in mokumé: pure or alloyed copper, silver, gold, and platinum. Copper works very well in mokumé. Its color naturally patinates to a rich wood tone, enhancing any wood-grain appearance. Shakudo, a copper-based alloy, is one of Steve’s favorites. It naturally patinates from a deep purple brown to black and provides a high contrast to most metals. Currently, Steve is experimenting with titanium for the colors it can produce and likes to work with platinum and titanium combinations.
“The main gold Steve works with is called 18K Green, which he says, ‘has a very pleasing color — not green — and excellent working characteristics.’ The only white gold he has had any success with is 14K and 18K Palladium White. ‘This would be the alloy to use if you want a precious metals laminate.’
Making Mokumé Mistakes
“Studying how different alloys behave and how well they are compatible has cost Steve both time and money, but he believes without those losses he would not be where he is today. Without pushing himself, he might never have discovered how to bond platinum with other metals, for example. As far as he knows, he is the first ever to accomplish this.
“He encourages others to experiment, and includes an extensive chart within an overview of metal compatibilities in his book Mokumé Gané: A Comprehensive Study. Develop your own combinations, he urges, and use the information he provides as a guideline and starting point.”
For more on Steve Midgett and mokumé gané, please see “18 Layers of Color” in the March 2002 Lapidary Journal.
Another Mokumé Gané Master: Chris Ploof
Based on his quest to work in mokumé gané so he could make rings, Chris Ploof shares that when he started trying to make mokumé gané, “I almost quit, over and over again. See, it’s like this. It is really easy to make junky mokumé. But really, really hard to make a high-quality mokumé gané billet. Add in the expense of using billets that don’t contain base metals (copper and its alloys never belong in mokumé rings due to galvanic corrosion issues) and having to take a loss every time you refine the failures, and you can just begin to get an idea of how frustrating a technique it is to learn let alone master. And just making a billet that doesn’t fail is simply the beginning.”
Chris continued with more of his quest for success and making rings. “I was working in bike shops by day and firing billets at night,” he says. “Waking up in the morning early, unloading the kiln, and either celebrating if things were stuck together or crying when they weren’t. This went on for quite a while.
“Jump forward into the new millennium. After dedicating a decade to the process and, oh, I don’t know, a quarter of a million dollars in equipment, time, and materials, I was finally getting results good enough to make rings.”
After seeing Chris’s work and visiting his website, I’d say his hard work has paid off! His work is amazing!
Ready to Tackle Making Mokumé Gané?
Are you looking to get into the mokume world? Chris has two videos on working with mokume available: Mokumé Gané Jewelry: Make a Pillow Pendant and Mokumé Gané Jewelry: Make a Bracelet with Chris Ploof. Chris spent years perfecting the mokumé gané process so you can skip that part and learn from his videos!
You can find Steve Midgett’s work along with many other mokumé gané artists who have graced different issues of Lapidary Journal in this 15-year collection.
Enjoy your mokumé journey – even if just a spectator –
Group Editorial Director, Bead & Jewelry; Editor Beadwork magazine
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