Today we will be taking a sweet trip down memory lane as we interview our pal, Spanish born and living in Japan: Jaume Labro, who will be telling us more about his art. The Lost Art of Mokumegane.
While many claim to being able to have perfected the technique, few have mastered that art at his level. He is one of the last person that the Japanese masters of old recognise as a Mokumegane master in his own right today.
So, if like us, you want to learn more about this peculiar and highly interesting topic, read on!
AsiaLounges: First of all, I would like to thank you for making time to be with us and to help us discover your world Jaume! Let us start with our traditional first question: Who are you Jaume Labro?
Jaume Labro: Hi Loungers, I’m Jaume Labro, Barcelona born, in the Catalunya region of Spain (North Eastern part of the country). I have had a deep interest for mountain climbing and Aikido since a young age. Both passions pushed me to travel the world for competitions and naturally drove me to where I live now, Japan. Upon finishing my studies I engaged in general trading activities until I stumbled upon gemmology at AIGS Bangkok some 12 years ago. Since, I have also graduated from GIA and have been full timing in our lovely world of gems and jewellery.
AsiaLounges: How did you discover the art of Mokumegane?
Jaume Labro: I discovered this antique technique as I was studying in GIA. There, I read a paper on it and was instantly interested. Eventually I decided to do my homework on it and discovered what I identified as a gap, an opportunity, between the potential of this technique and the way it was used so far as a jewellery manufacturing technique.
AsiaLounges: Perhaps, as a first question we should have asked you to tell us what exactly is Mokumegane? How it is done and why it holds such a special place in the Japanese jewellery world?
Jaume Labro: Mokume Gane (木目金) could be literally translated as “wood eye grain” referring to the pattern one can see in sliced wood. It started around 400 years ago in Akita prefecture (North of Honshu) and was created to be used as a decoration for the Japanese samurai sword (katana) being the main objects tsuba (the guarding piece of the katana), and sword covers. The highest-ranking people on any clan, famous samurai, Daimio (feudal lords) etc. were able to show their social status through the decorations of their swords.
However, with the Meiji restoration and the nation wide sword ban (end of the XIXth and beginning of the XXth century) the technique nearly disappeared and only few craftsmen were using it to create metal vessels, smoking pipes and other traditional objects for the temples. Because of this intimate relation with the Japanese history and folklore, this technique enjoys a special place in the heart of the Japanese people to this very day.
Mokume gane is basically a combination of different metal layers on top of each others that are properly arranged and diffused or bonded together using a very precise amount of pressure, temperature and time. It goes without saying that the soldering layers are not considered to be part of the mokume gane even though they could be considered to be other layers. Once the stack (called billet normally) is bonded it will look like a sort of sandwich of perfectly aligned metals. From there, the next step is to forge, in order to compress the crystals of the metals (As the temperature grows the bound between atoms grows “weaker”) and strengthen the billet that I eventually carve, twist, etc. in order to create the charactesitic pattern of the mokumegane. While each pattern is unique, the artist, in this case me, keeps a certain level of control over the overall design. Lastly, I’d say that the unique pattern that a mokumegane artist imposes to the metal is a more significant signature than the very metal they work on.
AsiaLounges: When we first heard of your work, I must admit that we were wondering a bit how it differed from Damascus and why it was so special. After seeing some of your work I have to say that we are quite interested in the way it looks. What drove you to this specialization? And how does it differ from Damascus?
Jaume Labro: Damascus, another forging technique that layers metals, is a great technique that was originally used for blades making and can also be seen today in the jewellery industry. The biggest difference is the way is Damascus is made, the metal is heated then folded while mokumegane doesn’t rely on folding as we saw earlier. Damascus also allows for repetition while mokumegane doesn’t partially because of the metal used (steel vs precious metal) but also because of the patterning that may be repeated indefinitely with the former but not with the later.
Honestly though, the reason why I started with the mokumegane technique is simply because I wanted to find a niche in which to thrive and to be an active member of the jewellery industry. You need to understand that unlike the vast majority of people in the trade, I started with no money, no mentor and no family member that were involved in the trade. I’m some kind of a first generation, spontaneous generation in the trade, a bit like you actually, which makes it more complex. So yes, I went with the first thing that looked interesting and challenging instead of looking for a romance with the material I used to work on. That doesn’t change the fact that I eventually fell in love with my art and that I dedicated countless hours and vast amount of efforts into mastering it to be who I am today and / or to develop my very own brand of mokumegane as well as my specific techniques within this art.
AsiaLounges: As a jeweller and a jewellery designer, we’d love to ear your input on creativity. Where do you find the inspiration for your different models, for your art?
Jaume Labro: Mokume gane as a technique has not been traditionally associated with great design. The main reason behind this is the fact that it is 100% handmade and there are many technical limitations that inherent to its production process. Most people just do wedding and engagement rings with it. This said, I strongly believe that the fine jewellery division offers an ocean of possibility to this art.
When I started, much like many beginners, I was lacking the much needed confidence to experiment design wise and it pushed me to take a design and business course that allowed me to find my voice as an artist. From that moment on my style, my mark, became apparent in my work. Ever since that time, my design became easily recognisable as I love to combine the natural aspect and typical asymmetrical patterns and shapes of the mokumegane with some of my more Spanish influence. I end up combining the influence that Catalan artists such as Dali, Picasso, Miro or Gaudi have had on me with minimalistic and clean designs emerging from the influence that the Japanese culture has had on me.
AsiaLounges: The vast majority of work I have seen from you are “Hagane” or “Full Metal” is it because you do not want to use gems or do you also use gems on your creations?
Jaume Labro: I have been using mainly metal in the past and I tried to use the mokume gane as if it were a cabochon or as a substitution to an opaque gem like say Jade, Turquoise, etc. In my work, the gems, be it colour gems or diamonds, they are northing more than an accent that should never replace or shadow the metal work. Therefore, to me, the real gem in my work has been the mokumegane itself but, to be fair, I’m using an increasing number of gems in my work nowadays.
AsiaLounges: I understand you have recently learned the lapidary arts from our friend Victor Tuzlukov, are you planning on taking a Japanese approach on gem cutting as well or was it out of sheer curiosity?
Jaume Labro: Well, my experience with Victor was unique, first because of the respect I have for him as an artist as well as for the type of person he is. Victor helped me look at stones in a very different way than I used to, he opened a world of opportunities to me. He likes to share his knowledge and is someone that takes pride in seeing his students improve which speaks volume as to who he is. I mean many would rather jealously keep their art a secret rather than publicise it.
When it comes to pure gem cutting, I was very impressed at the importance of the polish, It can literally change the colour of a gem. It can nullify, in some cases, the brownish / greyish shade that many gems have. Victor’s an artist in his own right and he really plays in a league of his own with very few other international contenders which is very different to even the so called top cutting that can be found in the market. I mean, compared to what Victor and these guys do, these gems are but top commercial goods that usurp the term top cutting.
My wish for the industry would be that the gemological reports start mentioning the cutting quality in the same manner that the diamond industry does. I believe it would allow the industry standard to improve rather than stagnate. While I do not know how complicated it would be to enforce this, I know that a lab in Spain (Instituto Gemologico Español - IGE) is already mentioning it on their report. I understand that the vast majority of people wouldn’t appreciate have their gems considered as poorly or fairly cut only and that it would create a lot of tension at first I think it would be beneficial to the industry and the end buyers in the long term.
As for me, well, I like to cut as good as I can which unfortunately stops me from cutting big or expensive material for the moment. This will change in time as I am relatively new to cutting after all and so I focus on polishing my skills by recuting gems that are in my inventory for the moment.
AsiaLounges: Further to our previous question, are you planning on developing your gem activities? If yes, what do you have in store? What’s coming?
Jaume Labro: The way I envision it to be is by creating a viable alternative to the so called high end jewellery, which to me is really high expenses jewellery today. What I mean by that is that I’d like to replace what we see today in the market, an expensive centre stone set in a boring or deja vu type design, by integrating the idea of jewellery to the gem cutting design.
In short, I’m looking forward to creating designs where, the unique patterns of the mokumegane complement a unique gem designs that I would have created too. What I want is to place the design at the centre of the value chain of the piece. Something akin to what Grima did only not exclusively with less expensive gems. To me the term High End needs to reflect the overall design of the piece, from the gem design to the piece of jewellery.
AsiaLounges: Back to your art, you once mentioned to me that only a handful of person where considered as Mokumegane masters today. Is it because it is a particularly complex art to master or is there another reason for that?
Jaume Labro: No, mokume gane is not that difficult an art to master in my opinion. You can find many people that can bond layers of metal together. This said, there are only few real specialists, because it requires one’s full dedication and a lot of research to be able to come up with new metals techniques, new patterns and to create high-quality mokume gane jewellery. To give you an idea, in Japan, there are only 2-3 companies that specialise in mokume gane jewellery in precious metals. All the others are working with copper, shibuishi, shakudo or other metals and most of them are working on the vessels side only. In my experience the most difficult part of learning about mokume gane is to find a good teacher, one that is opened to the idea of teaching you everything… Unfortunately, in my 10 + years of experience in Japan, this is nearly impossible. Since most tend to keep for themselves what they consider to be their “secrets”, the overall evolution of the technique is slow in Japan. In this regard, I believe that the EU and USA are much more open to share knowledge and thus more likely to come up with you technique and technologies related to this craft.
Another aspect of the slow growth process of this technique is that, while creating bridal jewelry is achievable for anyone that’s passionate enough, the creation of fine jewellery from mokumegane is a completely different ball game. To give you an idea, I have created a range of 50 to 60 pieces of non-bridal jewellery but, to the best of my knowledge, no one else so much as tried to do the same… Fine jewelry in mokumegane takes lots of time and generates lots of metal dust, therefore each unique piece fetches a price that is considered prohibitive by many. My guess is that most people do not understand, or fail to realise, the effort and time one needs to put into each and every piece. This has a cost. which is reflected by the selling price and, most likely is also the reason why the vast majority of mokumegane craftsmen end up specialising de facto in simpler, more affordable, bridal jewellery. That said, I definitely want to explore this area more in combination with custom-cut design gemstones.
AsiaLounges: Where are you planning on taking your art? By that I mean, you have made a fair few designs worthy of notice and I was wondering if you had a particular project in mind for the near future?
Jaume Labro: I just finished a fancy yellow diamond with imperial jade earrings that will be auctioned in Hong Kong soon in collaboration with a local supplier of high-quality Jade. I’m interested in putting all my efforts into making unique pieces even though it will require me to reduce the quantity of pieces I can produce per year. It is a risky move, but I don’t want to compromise my creativity by always creating the same pieces. Also, I’d love to work more on objects. I’m currently running the final tests for two new mokumegane techniques that, hopefully should be ready within another 1 or 2 months.
Last but not least, I’d like to collaborate with gemstone dealers, other jewellery brands or fashion brands in order to learn and experiment with them new ways to use my art. I believe the feedback that these other professional would give me could prove beneficial to all of us and of course to my art and craft.
AsiaLounges: On a more commercial basis, how can interested Loungers or other jewellers around the world contact you?
Jaume Labro: Anyone interested can contact me either via you guys, AsiaLounges, or through my website www.jaumelabro.com as well as on Instagram with the same name.
AsiaLounges: I understand that on occasion you offer some special services to clients such as having a Shinto ceremony done in order to bless the rings or pieces of jewellery. Is there a specific reason behind? How do you organise that and how could interested Loungers be eligible for such services?
Jaume Labro: I live in a very area located between the sea and Mt. Fuji (as in I can see the Mount). A few minutes walk away from where I live is a very popular Shinto shrine. I once talked with the head priest there and asked if it would be possible to have a ritual blessing of the pieces prior to being shipped. They agreed and, while it is not a free service, I think it is a very nice ceremony and a lovely extra touch to the clients that desire it.
In the same way that most people purchase jewellery with a positive attitude, whether it is for love, for a celebration or to remember a particular event in life, I try to make my jewellery in a similar way. Therefore, I’m using recycled metals, I use hybrid vehicle for the delivery in most countries of my pieces, I’m using recycled paper for packaging as well as to giving a percentage of our sales to two projects that are of particular relevance to me. The first one is to help with the education of kids in Sierra Leone and the other is by planting trees.
One of the things I like to do is, to send the GPS location of the trees that have been planted thanks to my clients’ purchase. From there, they can check by themselves the CO2 footprint neutralisation through the years that this will create. I basically want to showcase the idea behind the reason for me to be making my jewellery in such a manner, to show that it is inspired by nature and people and therefore should give back to the source of my inspiration a part of what it gave me. This is something that is very important to me and I wanted to show that this is not another marketing move, it is something serious to me.
This is the Morito Shrine (森戸神社), the temple in which Jaume has his pieces blessed
AsiaLounges: Last but not least, I understand that you work on special designs on occasions, can you make any type of designs? Are there any limitations to your art like material, shapes, colour perhaps?
Jaume Labro: On principle yes, however, I believe that one need to remain aware of the limitations in terms of designs such as the thickness. One needs to remember that you need a certain thickness in order to bend the metal in two different directions at the same time as well as to remembering that all metals don’t play well with each others. We therefore need to study each requests on a case by case basis before agreeing to a custom design.
Another limitation is the craftsmanship itself. When we play with different colours of gold such as blue and purple, we ended up having trouble with the forging process because the metal was too hard. Yet another problem here was the fact that the colour on the purple gold wasn’t really stable.
Therefore, while I’m always game for a set of trial and error testings myself, I’d love to see renown artists such as Wallace Chan work with mokumegane. I believe it would be truly inspirational and would help us all push the limits of the technique that much farther. This said, and in the meantime, I’m on my own with the development of new jutsus (technique in Japanese)…
AsiaLounges: Thanks a lot for your time Jaume. I’m convinced that much like it was for us, our readers have enjoyed this interview and have learned a lot by reading it.
We hope to see your products and yourself back in the Lounges some time soon!
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We’ll see you again soon with other interesting topic and interviews in the near future so stay tuned and,
See you in the Lounges,