Tokyo antimony craft Tokyo antimony kogeihin
A fall from grace with the Meiji Restoration
Graceful products leading the export industry of Japan
Tokyo Antimony Craft is metalwork produced in an area from the northeast of Tokyo through to Abiko City in Chiba Prefecture.
Antimony is an alloy, which easily takes impressions, has a smooth surface and does not shrink during cooling after casting; Tokyo Antimony Craft makes full use of these properties to produce fine and highly detailed features on such varied articles as accessories, figurines, presentation trophies, music boxes, and interior goods. When coated with gold, silver, or copper, pieces look incredibly luxurious. In recent years, a new alloy Etena jointly developed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute and Tokyo Antimony Association has been used as it allows a mirror finish, very much like silverware; this was a great technical breakthrough as conventional tinware does not polish as well. This new development led to the production of the current Tokyo Antimony Craftwork with its beautiful shine.
The origins of antimony products date back to 1877 when just after the Meiji Restoration in 1867, casters and engravers employed as weapon makers by the Tokugawa Shogunate lost their jobs. They quickly applied their initiative and established techniques to make antimony products.
The antimony industry, even with being born into turbulent times, was not greatly affected by such subsequent events as the Great Kanto Earthquake, the great financial panic, global depression, and World War II. In fact, only one month after the end of World War II in 1945, a meeting to herald the resumption of the association was held. After the Antimony Industrial Cooperative Association was officially launched in 1949, the industry contributed to the national export policy to earn hard currencies, and developed into an industry leading Japanese economic growth. In reality they were just carrying on a tradition when through the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-1989) periods, antimony products contributed strongly to the development of the export industry of Japan. Today not only are they highly valued as Japanese traditional crafts by Westerners, but are also immensely popular abroad.
General Production Process
- 1. Making the Model
The original models of antimony products are made by highly skilled and talented craftsmen who are well acquainted with each stage of production. Depending on the design, craftsmen choose one of two types of model: wooden or plaster.
- 2. Making the Casting Mold
Using the original model sand molds are formed, into which brass alloy is poured to make a metal mold for each section. These sections are combined to make a casting mold; the mold is carefully assembled and hammered to increase its strength. For finishing, the casting mold is lathed and filed and polished with charcoal.
Next, any details, designs, or images are engraved into the casting mold, by using a graver and nanako (fish-eggs) tool. Before World War II, traditional Japanese patterns such as flowers and birds, natural scenes, or Mt. Fuji were popular, whereas today, there has been a gradual shift to modern and Western style designs. Engraving is the most difficult task and requires the most expertise of all the stages of production. The engraving techniques have not changed since the Meiji period, and since the metal mold is made of a brass alloy, it is possible to engrave exquisitely fine details.
- 3. Casting
There are four casting methods: yakibuki, modoshibuki, hiyashibuki, and jiganebuki.
In yakibuki, the casting mold is heated in a furnace at about 300 to 350ºC (melting temperature of antimony), and then removed, and molten metal poured into the mold, which is then gradually cooled with water. The temperature of the molten alloy in the casting mold, the angle of the casting mold, the flow speed of the alloy, and air removal are all dependent on the craftsman’s years of skill and experience.
In modoshibuki, the molten alloy is poured from the gate of the casting mold, and after 10 to 15 seconds, the molten alloy is removed from the mold; this technique can be applied to any shape, and mainly used for such products as figurines or jewelry boxes.
Hiyashibuki is a simple method in which the water cooling used in yakibuki is omitted. Jiganebuki is a method in which the casting mold is heated by floating on molten metal. These two methods are used in the casting of small-size products.
- 4. Finishing
After removing the workpiece from the casting mold, it is carefully finished using special tools until any seams and joins are no longer distinguishable.
- 5. Plating
When plating with copper, gold, or silver, a copper coat is always applied first. After plating, transparent enamel may be applied to prevent rust.
- 6. Coating
For plated pieces, a transparent coating is applied to prevent discoloration of the surface.