What do you think of when it comes to precious metal? Maybe, the first comer is gold, and the second one silver. (Some people may well think of platinum, though.)
If you are looking for something like that, Edo-ginki is the perfect choice for you. Now, let’s delve into the beauty and history.
Gin and ki are silver and shape in Japanese respectively, and Tokyo is Tokyo (as it is). Therefore, Tokyo-ginki means Tokyo-silver-works. Yes, they are the Japanese masterpieces made of silver.
It may sound strange that Japan has specialty in that area, for silverware seems something for nobles in Europe in the Middle Ages. However, the history of silver in Japan can trace back to even the year 916 or possibly more and Japan was one of the biggest producing countries of silver. Tokyo-ginki is such a historical artifact.
In the Edo era of Japan, which is during 1603 to 1868, the artisans who dealt with silver were called “Shirogane-shi (silver master or master of silver, in English).
Their pieces were loved by many feudal lords in Japan. Many masterpieces were created then and many lords enjoyed the beauty. However, silver was popular not only in upper social class but also the other people. Historians have found that there was a law that bans wearing luxuries in 1789 in Japan, and this “luxuries” explicitly included silver; this suggests that silver was originally common among many people in the time.
In 1867, Paris held the world exhibition, where the Japanese silver works, such as silver teacups, were introduced. The Japanese silvers soon became sensational all over Europe for the unique and Japanesque shape, which was probably possible then because they made it manually. Tokyo-ginki and the technique to make them is a heritage from the era and now manufactured mainly in Tokyo, which used to be called Edo.
How to make Tokyo-ginki?
There are mainly 3 inherited methods to make Tokyo-ginki: The first one is Tan-kin, which is shaping by hitting silver. They hammer out the material and then turn the flattened silver into a particular shape, so the base of the piece becomes thin but the edge tends to be thick; the next one is Cho-kin, which is engraving and putting together with other metal. This way allows artisans to put many patterns on the surface, which the Europe people in the history loved (and probably still love); and the third one is Kiri-bame, which is making a slot or cut line and attaching the part of other metal into there by brazing. Of course, these 3 methods are combined to make one silver piece, like accessory and an art object, but the base is Tan-kin.
Hammering silver into a bowl takes 1 day, and if a teapot, it takes 3 days. One artisan says that making a fine teapot out of silver is the mere start as a professional silver master.
Of course, when it comes to hammering out, the hammer they use is really important. The real master of silver can tell if the hammer is suitable for the silver or not just by listening to the hitting sound.
Secret of the shine
Tokyo-ginki is really famous for the shine, which lasts very long. Why is it everlasting? Actually, there is a qualification for silver to be the material of Tokyo-ginki; it should be 92.5 % purity.
The Japan Mint classifies silver into 5 grades, 100% purity, 95%, 92.5%, 90% and 80%. The class of Tokyo-ginki is at least the third, but this never mars the elegance of this art; actually, silver is so soft that 100% purity is really fragile. Therefore, the artisan combined silver with other metal to make it much more durable.
On the other hand, ISO 9202 and JIS H6309 place 3 grades about quality of silver, 92.5% purity, 83.5% and 80%. In this criterion, the Tokyo-ginki belongs to the highest class.
By the way, even so, the silver of Tokyo-ginki sometimes tarnishes because of oxidization. In this case, put toothpaste on dry cotton and rub the surface lightly with it. After that, clean the surface with cloth, and the shine will come back.
How to distinguish Tokyo-ginki?
Now, you may worry about how to distinguish Tokyo-ginki from other silver works. Yes, it seems really difficult to tell them from the others without the profound knowledge — but don’t worry. Actually, the Association of Tokyo-ginki made an institution to certify Tokyo-ginki: the real Tokyo-ginki has a hallmark on it.
The hallmark is impressed to certify that the piece is authentic Tokyo-ginki and of high-quality silver, and this also helps many common people purchase safe silvers (bad metal affects your skin badly, you know).
Of course, due to this mark, Tokyo-ginki is getting more and more renowned as a brand. The more famous Tokyo-ginki becomes, the more trustworthy it gets. As getting more trustworthy, the brand will become more prestigious and so will the artisans.
The hallmark is also an embodiment of the pride of the artisans; every hallmark of Tokyo-ginki requires other mark of the artisan himself to clarify who made the piece. Therefore, they can’t make a lukewarm piece.
The current Tokyo-ginki
Nowadays, the popularity of Tokyo-ginki remains as it was in the Edo era and there are many articles like rings, pendants, cups, teapots, plates, vases and others. However, an artisan complains on the small number of customers. Why? He explains:
“It was after death of my father that I became finally a full-fledged artisan, and his pieces were all sold out while he was alive. Now, nothing of him is left, so I have to sell my own creations; however, one customer rarely comes twice. I know the reason. It’s because my father’s work was too perfect to break, so they don’t have to visit me for their new article. Tokyo-ginki is so durable…
“But now, there are brand new and modern pieces of Tokyo-ginki and I don’t want them to miss the new comers. I really wish they and you would visit me.”
【日英対訳】日本の歴史100 100 Things on Japanese History