Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

The gold standard: Ginza Tanaka is the pinnacle of Japanese metalwork

Ginza Tanaka is a pioneering company with a 127-year history in the crafting of precious metals. Determined to carry on the techniques developed by earlier artisans and pass the skills to future generations, the venerable purveyor continues to offer flawless works made of the highest-quality metalsGold is a durable asset unaffected by the passage of time. To the metal’s intrinsic worth Ginza Tanaka seeks to add artistic value by creating objects of consummate beauty. Since the 1980s, the company has presented finely wrought precious-metal pieces ranging from tableware to Buddhist statues and altar fittings.

Craftsman Konan Ishiguro | SHUNSUKE WATABE
Craftsman Konan Ishiguro | SHUNSUKE WATABE

In this endeavor, Ginza Tanaka has three aims: to support traditional craftsmen, whose number has been steadily decreasing; to keep its techniques alive for subsequent generations; and to introduce its craft traditions to the wider world. To accomplish these goals, Ginza Tanaka provides precious metals to master craftsmen, such as Konan Ishiguro, giving them opportunities to use their skills.

One such highly specialized traditional technique is the tama-arare hailstone repousse method, which Ishiguro uses to fashion meticulous relief designs.

“There is no room for error,” he says. “The process requires a tremendous amount of time, energy and concentration. Most people would say it’s not worth the effort, so there are only a very few of us who carry it on.” To create a range of wares, he begins with the tankin metal-hammering technique, which involves heating and beating gold and silver sheets into rounded forms without any seams. The decorative techniques follow.

Wafer-thin: A pure gold sheet is cut in a circle. Ishiguro repeatedly heats and hammers it, first into a bowl shape, then a cylinder, and finally a kettle. | SHUNSUKE WATABE
Wafer-thin: A pure gold sheet is cut in a circle. Ishiguro repeatedly heats and hammers it, first into a bowl shape, then a cylinder, and finally a kettle. | SHUNSUKE WATABE

Ishiguro makes his masterpieces in a workshop built adjacent to his home. He learned his tama-arare skills from his father, Konan I.

“In my father’s time, they mainly produced traditional items such as chagama teakettles, but I have opted to take on the challenge of creating something new and modern. As I said earlier, only a few people make tama-arare ware. I find it all the more rewarding because I’m one of the few.”

Precision technique: After marking the vertical and horizontal lines, Ishiguro finds the exact spot where the sharp tip is pressed from the inside using his fingertips. There, he caps the concave end of the stick burin from the outside, and starts beating the stick's flat end. In order to hammer tama-arare projections of uniform size and shape on each row, it is essential that the gold sheet forming the kettle be absolutely even in thickness. | SHUNSUKE WATABE
Precision technique: After marking the vertical and horizontal lines, Ishiguro finds the exact spot where the sharp tip is pressed from the inside using his fingertips. There, he caps the concave end of the stick burin from the outside, and starts beating the stick’s flat end. In order to hammer tama-arare projections of uniform size and shape on each row, it is essential that the gold sheet forming the kettle be absolutely even in thickness. | SHUNSUKE WATABE

Exactly how does the process work? First, artisans heat and hammer a sheet of precious metal into a vessel shape and make preliminary markings for the desired design. Next, they work with burins that come in concave-convex pairs. Against the interior wall of the vessel, they press a short burin with a pointed tip and then, finding the exact spot the tip is pushing from the inside, “cap” it with the concave end of a sticklike burin from the outside. They then start beating the flat end of the stick burin with a hammer.

This is certainly easier said than done. To feel the metal for the pointed tip that is pressing from the inside and cap it with absolute precision, the master craftsman has to rely solely on his fingertips and the heightened sensitivity he has acquired through long years of experience. When Ishiguro softly lowers his metal hammer to tap the burin, tension runs through the workshop. Should there be the slightest error in placement, there will be no chance to redo it.

The precise points where the stud-shaped projections are to be hammered out are carefully determined in the beginning, along with the sizes of the projections. Right after he forms a kettle, Ishiguro uses a pair of compasses to mark horizontal and vertical lines on its surface. The projections are hammered out at the points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. The wider the diameter of the kettle at a particular point, the larger the projections, so that the number in each row around the kettle’s circumference stays the same — and therein lies one secret of the kettle’s exquisite beauty.

Spouting off: The process of shaping a spout is called bin-bin. Seated at his tree-stump workbench, Ishiguro inserts one end of the horizontal arm of a T-shaped tool into a yet-to-be-formed spout and starts beating the other end with a metal hammer. Vibrations from the beats shape the spout. Bin-bin is an onomatopoeic word, imitating the sound that the metals make when vibrating against each other. | SHUNSUKE WATABE
Spouting off: The process of shaping a spout is called bin-bin. Seated at his tree-stump workbench, Ishiguro inserts one end of the horizontal arm of a T-shaped tool into a yet-to-be-formed spout and starts beating the other end with a metal hammer. Vibrations from the beats shape the spout. Bin-bin is an onomatopoeic word, imitating the sound that the metals make when vibrating against each other. | SHUNSUKE WATABE

Ishiguro makes most of his own tools — burins, hammers, spatulas and bladed implements — to his personal specifications by heating and beating out the iron. He fashioned his workbench from a tree stump.

Accomplished craftsmen like to make their own tools to best fit their hands. The burins in particular wear out very quickly because repeated beatings from metal hammers blunt the pointed tips. Ishiguro needs to make new burins about every six months.

Learning about these painstaking processes makes one keenly aware of how much time and passion the craftsman invests in each of his kettles and cups. With such traditional techniques of Japanese craftsmanship dying out, Ginza Tanaka sincerely works to ensure a revitalized future for the master craftsmen, their skills and, indeed, the whole precious-metals industry.

Burnished sheen: The final process is polishing, which has five stages. Each requires a different tool: a file, a bladed implement called a kisage, a whetstone, paulownia charcoal and a spatula. When the five-step polishing process is complete, the kettle is finally finished. | SHUNSUKE WATABE
Burnished sheen: The final process is polishing, which has five stages. Each requires a different tool: a file, a bladed implement called a kisage, a whetstone, paulownia charcoal and a spatula. When the five-step polishing process is complete, the kettle is finally finished. | SHUNSUKE WATABE

For more information, visit www.ginzatanaka.co.jp/en. Prices are subject to change according to daily gold rates.