Emerald, crystal, agate, coral, pearl, gold, and silver—these are the seven auspicious treasures (“shippo”) described in the Buddhist sutra that aesthetically profess the essence of true beauty, which have been identified with Shippo, the traditional craft of Japanese cloisonné.
The history of cloisonné goes as far as the Silk Road, traveling busily from Southeast Europe, China and finally to Japan. Archeological cloisonné enamel treasures were discovered in Japanese ancient mound tombs in the 7th century, and since then, had spread rapidly throughout the country, settling in Aichi Prefecture as the seat of production. It was during the Paris International Exposition in 1867 when Japanese cloisonné wares debuted for international exposure, displaying traditional Japanese art forms, porcelain dinnerware, Rococo plates, art glass, lacquer, pottery, and mixed metal decorative pieces. From this trade fair, Japanese artists and manufacturers brought home decorative European objects, Victorian enamelware, and other ceramics, which consequently blended with the traditional Shippo. In Saga, Kyushu, pottery fairs are held in autumn, as the city is home to the famous Arita-yaki (Arita ceramics). Shippo has become prominent in this city, and takes pride in its historical roots that stretch back to the Heian period (794-1185).
Saori Hosoi is a young Shippo artisan from Saga, who has been creating her own cloisonné jewelry since 2005, when she set up her own atelier, modern shippo atelier Pray, in Saga city. Merely thirty years old, Hosoi-san is one of the rare, young female members of the Japan Shippo Leaders Association. After studying ceramics at the Saga University Faculty of Culture and Education Arts and Crafts she learned the craft of cloisonné from cloisonné master Kazuko Murayama.
SH: While studying Shippo in the university, I was inevitably drawn to the charm of cloisonné—the delicacy and colors, the glow of the glass material, which showed me so many vivid colors.
AR: Saori explains the basic technique she employs for her Shippo craft. There are five fundamental types of Shippo techniques. Yusen-shippo originates from China, and consists of compartments created with wire coated in enamel. The enamel commonly rises above the wires, called “raised cloisonné” or “Moriage-shippo.” Musen-shippo is wireless cloisonné. It either applies enamel to the body or applies the wire while the enamel is being painted, then removing the wire before firing the object. Dei-shippo is used for opaque, matte enamels, which were common in the past before bright enamels were introduced. These pieces were made with a synthetic glaze. Totai-shippo cuts parts of an object’s body, which are then, filled with semi-translucent or translucent enamel—a technique resembling stained glass. Shotai-Shippo uses translucent enamels applied through Yusen-shippo, but dipped in a tub of nitric acid. The metal dissolves and leaves only the metal wires and the enamels.
SH: I use Yusen-shippo or "wired cloisonné.” In this method, you draw a line in the pattern of the sterling silver very thinly, and then, burn the cloisonné glaze. The characteristic pattern can be seen very clearly, and can be expressed precisely.
AR: Saori’s designs transcend those developed by noted Shippo predecessors—the legendary Kaji Tsunekichi, a samurai from 1835, followed by his son, Kaji Satano, who developed Renaissance cloisonné in Japan in the1850s; and later, Sosuke Namikawa of the late 1900s and Yasuyuki Namikawa from Kyoto. These formidable artists were renowned for their aesthetic application of intricate, traditional patterns, such as the tri-footed pear, smoking white swirl, red cloisonné border, fine Meiji tree bark, vintage bright flowers, “tsuiki carp on ginbari,” (wireless cloisonné using clear enamel over a stippled silver layer applied to copper sheet), Meiji-styled birds, fish, clouds, leaves, and more. While Saori adheres to the traditional techniques, she employs the modern, contemporary touch on jewelry accessories—pins, brooches, pendants, rings, and others—inspired by mixed Japanese and avant-garde motifs, such as the sakura cherry blossom, botan (peony) flower, lily, lotus, peach flower, moonlight, tear, cross, skull, cat, star, tortoise shell, heart, and shapes.
Traditional Japanese crafts have surpassed thousands of generations generally by family trade—delicate craftsmanship passed on from grandfather to father to son, and so on. Consequently, this has become a growing obstacle in Japan for young artists who wish to enter the trade independently. Cloisonné is no exception.
SH: It is true that cloisonné had been limited in the past to the transmission of the technique from father to son. However, in Japan today, this is changing. The craft is becoming available to artists who want to try it if they have the proper tools. The process itself may take only minutes to start, but your work cannot produce great results if basic technology is insufficient. I think that an artist has to be truly and steadily committed to this craft, and has to be able to improve the technology of cloisonné, which is very important. The transmission of the craft’s secret only from father to son does not leak the mystery of the art and the learning process to other people. This has to be passed on freely from generation to generation to establish "devolution."
AR: Another harrowing challenge to hurdle in Japan is the persistent graying society. With a decreasing birth rate of merely 1.39 per woman, traditional Japanese crafts have been left buried in the hands of senior craft masters who have no youngsters to train. Can Japanese modern society ever mend this unresolved decay of intellectual and artistic growth?
SH: The aging society is a big problem even for cloisonné. I am one of the remaining young cloisonné artists in Japan. The craft may be less popular for the younger generation, so I have a duty to spread this craft; that is important, and I think to be able to succeed in this effort depends largely on yourself and your commitment.
AR: Have there been any outstanding changes in the development of Japanese cloisonné from past to present in terms of technology and design?
SH: In the past, the production of pottery played a central role in cloisonné. There was a defined division of labor—a separate person each creates the silver wire, the design, the planting line, the firing etc. Now, the industrial workshop of pottery has been reduced, and one single person can perform the production process from first to last stage. The design as well, has been evolving from the patterns of nature, such as classic motifs of beauty to wider freedom in design, shapes and colors. While traditional crafts focus on preserving the fundamentals of design and technology, contemporary art should not be borne only from that. I also try to incorporate the elements of fashion in modern design. I create accessories that young people of today can wear willingly. Being in this trade has not significantly changed my basic lifestyle, but I’ve observed that I’ve become more thoughtful of the beautiful things in nature. If I did not become a cloisonné artist, I may have remained a pottery artist because I studied ceramics in college, and at one time, wanted to become a potter. Cloisonné and pottery have the same basic concept of "baking," but the material is completely different since pottery stems directly from the soil. And, pottery produces mainly ceramic dishes, for example, but cloisonné, on the other hand, is commonly linked with accessories. I think this disparity changes the overall expression and one’s attitude toward human nature.
The peaceful Ariake sea in Saga city continues to glow against its crimson sunset, and the golden flora suspend frolickingly over verdant fields, as Saori’s modern shippo atelier Pray studio pursues, indeed, its benevolent “prayer” for her continuous dedication and spirit not only for rustic beauty in cloisonné art, but also for the forceful modality of design evolution.
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Modern shippo atelier Pray