Molding the way for new silverwork design

by D.H. Rosen

Raising, chasing, casting, forging, reticulation, repousse . . . even the terms that describe metalworking can be daunting to the novice, while the processes themselves prove metal to be one of the most difficult materials to tame. But what if you had a malleable metal substance that would take shape right in your hands without any training or tools? Enter “silver clay.”

Made of silver powder, water and a binding agent, silver clay feels like refined Play-Doh to the touch and is almost as easy to mold. No hammering, heating or casting is required. It can be fashioned into myriad shapes in minutes, or even moistened to make a paste that can be used to embellish the surfaces of other materials. Just like clay used in ceramics, silver clay hardens when heated to high temperatures, and the firing process rids it of impurities to yield solid forms that are 99 percent silver. To the purist, using a material like this might be perceived as “cheating,” but to the novice it is a godsend that allows almost immediate mastery of a demanding material.

Designer Rie Nagumo has known the secret of silver clay since it came on the market over 15 years ago. She worked for the company that developed the material and was one of the first artists to put it to use, but she is just now discovering its true potential through the curation of Jun-Gin Collection, a group exhibition that gathers dozens of creators across multiple genres. Now in its second year, Jun-Gin Collection 2010 will be showing from April 30 to May 2 at the Fukui Aoyama 291 Gallery in Omotesando.

Frustrated with the state of design in Japan in the post bubble-economy era, which Nagumo describes as “excessive and sales-driven,” she was determined to inject some much-needed soul into the industry. Nagumo believed that good design should not just be pleasing to the eye, but it should also touch our lives in a meaningful way. Last year she shared this vision with a few of her friends and word spread quickly. Before she knew it, Nagumo had 50 creators from different backgrounds ready to challenge the boundaries of design in a formal setting, and the Jun-Gin Collection was born.

To provide some unity to the exhibition, Nagumo introduced two guidelines: The resulting artworks should be “accessories,” and some part of each piece should employ silver clay. But these rules are hardly limiting, as silver clay is by nature a versatile material and Nagumo’s definition of accessories is not limited to jewelry.

“When I speak of ‘accessories,’ I am not using the word in its generally accepted meaning,” she explains. “Accessories are not necessarily just body adornments, they can also be described as ‘small creations that enrich our lives.’ “

This broad interpretation of accessories lends itself to the broad range of talent represented by the Jun-Gin cast. With designers, artists and craftsmen from multiple backgrounds, the resulting work is as varied as the participants. This medley of talent also provided a unique opportunity for exchange among participants. Group meetings morphed into workshops where members could share ideas and techniques from their respective fields.

Even the venue itself became an unexpected impetus for exchange. Maintained by Fukui Prefecture, the Fukui Aoyama 291 Gallery is designed both to support Fukui residents in Tokyo and to introduce Tokyoites to Fukui commodities. Several of the Jun-Gin participants call Fukui home, and this year the group decided to formalize the connection with a trip to Obama, the Fukui city that drew the eyes of the world during the 2008 United States presidential elections.

Besides sharing the same name as the American president, Obama City’s other claim to fame is as Japan’s largest manufacturer of lacquered chopsticks, producing about 80 percent of those made in the entire country. Earlier this year, six members of the Jun-Gin collective traveled to Obama to meet with chopstick artisans and discuss new collaborative models. The fruits of their labors will be on display at the exhibition in the form of design prototypes.

Also in the venue will be a separate corner featuring works made using the more recently developed “gold clay” and “copper clay,” as well as a shop featuring products developed by Jun-Gin members especially for this show. All in all, with the work of 50 artists of varied disciplines clearly pushing boundaries, Jun-Gin Collection 2010 promises to produce some surprises.

“Jun-Gin members range from their 20s to their 50s,” says Nagumo. “They are half men and half women, in-house designers and freelancers from all different backgrounds and all different fields. It was really hard bringing a group like this together, but that was also the most interesting part. I hope this energy and intensity comes across in the show.”

Jun-Gin Collection 2010 is on display at the Fukui Aoyama 291 Gallery 2nd Floor Event Space from April 30 through May 2; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (till 5 p.m. on May 2). Opening party and live events throughout the day on May 1. For more information, visit