In considering the magnificent oeuvre of Peter Carl Fabergé, I may have given the impression that his creations are my favorite goldsmith’s work. In Western Art, that is probably true. Though Fabergé did Slavic pieces, he is really in the tradition of the great 18th century French goldsmiths. The Wallace Collection in London has a number of these French boxes, and the workmanship is also exquisite. For those who like small boxes but whose wallets don’t run to guilloché on gold (engine-turned designs under transparent enamel, a Fabergé specialty) can collect Halcyon Days enamel on copper, though even those have gone up in price. Still, 18th century gold boxes and Fabergé guilloche will set you back a great deal more than English copper enamel boxes.
As I say, Fabergé is my favorite Western goldsmith, but it would be hard to beat some of the Japanese metal work. Not only are there remarkable articulated crustaceans that bend, but then there are the swords. They are so well known that katana, the name of the longer of the two swords a Samurai usually carried, has almost become almost a household name.
I should say a word about the swords themselves before I move on to my real subject, the sword furniture that garnishes the blades. Most people know that making a Japanese sword is a laborious craft, involving heating and folding the metal to give it flexibility. In fact, as I understand it, the edge is honed steel, and the folding results in layers of softer steel in the middle of the sword for flexibility. The very pattern of the edge, the hamon, will tell an expert who made the sword without even looking for a signature.
There are several varieties of Japanese swords, including a long sword, the tachi, and other blades besides the traditional two swords of the samurai. To say these swords were sharp and deadly is an understatement. It is said that one swordsman was found dead, sliced in half diagonally with a cut that went from above his hip through the opposite shoulder. It was thought that his opponent simply must have drawn his sword right up through him. I don’t know which is more terrifying, the strength of the killer or the sharpness of the blade.
CHECKING THE BLADE
It seems that in the past checking the efficacy of the blades was done by taking them out to an execution field after the executions to see how many body parts the sword could cut through. I believe the most difficult was a “wheel cut,” through the hips. This practice, thankfully, does not to seem to have been as common as it is thought now, but there are swords marked with the results of these tests. As this was hardly a pleasant way to test swords, not to mention it was more than little macabre, it became customary to bind straw around bamboo to simulate the original density of the body part and cut through that.
While I am being morbid, I should also say that ritual suicide, or seppuku, also used the sword, and not only in disemboweling oneself. As this was a painful death, one asked a friend who was a good swordsman to act as second. After the man who was to die started to cut himself, the second would lop off his head. “To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor” may befit a samurai or Cho-Cho-San, but I am not sure what my priest would say. However, Chūsingura, the beloved, fictionalized accounts of the “Forty-Seven Ronin” ends with the mass suicide of the ronin who pretended to be masterless samurai to avenge an insult done their lord. They are regarded as heroes even in modern Japan.
Given the importance of the sword in Japan (though archery may have been more important in war), it is not surprising that the sword furnishings were things of beauty: the pommel end, the sword’s side pieces, the ferrule at the end of the hilt, and the hand guard between the blade and the hilt, along with the sword’s accessories, such as the small knife in the sheath and an instrument for arranging the hair! Often these pieces were made en suite with a theme taken from nature or mythology.
The metal work is elegant and sophisticated. Often of shakudō alloy, with around 5 to 10% gold and the rest copper, the metal is treated until it is black or indigo, which, when gilded, makes for a lovely effect. I recall having seen a tsuba or hand guard with gilded, partly gilded, and not gilded leaves floating in water, representing autumn leaves falling into a stream. Or there was a sheath knife handle with a small cricket at one end with its antennae stretching across the rest of the hilt.
Oxford and Cambridge are blessed with the Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam Museums, both of which have collections of Japanese Sword Furniture. The Fitzwilliam website mentions them, but the Ashmolean displays its collection of tsuba online. I particularly like the peonies with only the sepal or veins gilded, or the tsuba with butterflies and a fan.
This is only one page of the huge collection, and a great many of these do not thrill me, but the two I mention are both objects to covet, if that were not a sin. I wouldn’t feel too sorry for the Fitzwilliam, however. The Museum thinks it may have the only extant Michelangelo bronzes left, a pair of panthers ridden by bacchants. If the attribution to Michelangelo is correct, which is always very hard to prove (and obvisouly not everyone is convinced!), Cambridge has a victory over Oxford that not even victory in the Boat Race can eclipse!