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The Beauty and History of Japanese Shakudō Jewelry

This Guest Post is by Lisa Shoreland who was born and raised in Japan.

Black Shakudo Fan Motif Pendant by KAZism on Etsy
Japanese Shakudō
Shakudō is a Japanese term for a low gold content alloy used in certain types of jewelry and ornamentation. The somewhat esoteric technique has a long and colorful history, and knowing it is sure to raise our appreciation for the delicate process and its breathtakingly beautiful products.

Origins of Japanese Shakudō
Traditionally, the Japanese employed the shakudō to decorate katana (longsword) fittings. These included tsuba (the guard at the end of the grip) and kozuka (the grip of a small knife). The alloy formed a base for inlays and accompanying patinas for which Japanese decorative katana are so celebrated.

As the samurai class grew obsolete in the 19th century, visitors from the West showed interest in shakudō and carried its influence across the seas. Although many westerners believed never to have encountered shakudō before, recent evidence points to its use by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and even Romans. The art likely started in said regions and traveled east to Japan over time.

Post-Samurai Shakudō
The fall of the samurai didn’t shake shakudō artisans, however, and the art continued to flourish both in the West and East. It is today most often used in the technique of mokume-gane, a layering process that creates a mixed-metal laminate. This technique, too, owes its claim to fame to the samurai; it came about in the process of forging swords and other weaponry for the warrior class in the 17th century.

The term shakudō today has become somewhat generalized to indicate any Japanese damascened ornament or jewelry. Such decorative objects are often referred to as Amita damascene, after a 20th century manufacturer.

Shakudo Brooch with Opals by KAZism on Etsy

The Colors of Shakudō
The traditional shakudō alloy contains only trace amounts of gold—typically 4%, but ranging from 2 all the way to 25%—with the rest being mostly copper. It is treated with a chemical solution to achieve its trademark blue or purplish hue, although some manufacturers pride themselves on a chocolaty, earthen finish.

Japanese artists were (and remain today) known sticklers for colors. This, in fact, ties directly to how the hues of shakudō were initially achieved by the Japanese. Artisans tired of gold, copper, and silver hues and began experimenting for broader ranges of color. They found that surface chemical treatment of copper and copper alloys with a low content of gold produced blue- and purple-black. The kanji characters spelling shakudō literally translate to “red copper,” but the art has often been referred to as “black gold,” “crow’s gold,” or “crow’s copper,” owing to a crow’s purple-black plumage.

Shakudō Jewelry
Despite its martial origins, shakudō should not be treated roughly by its wearer! Remove any shakudō jewelry before cleansing, exercising, and applying ointments or lotions, since chemicals can eventually remove the piece’s protective coating. To clean the piece itself, one should employ a soft cloth with no abrasive cleansers.

Bio: Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go College, where recently she's been researching student loan application tips as well as student loan default recovery. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing, practicing martial arts, and taking weekend trips.
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  1. The pieces pictured in this post are beautiful examples of this art form, very lovely.

    Some people might be put off by the fact that it is delicate and requires a bit of caution when wearing but I think too many people tend to abuse their jewelry and wear it swimming, bathing , jogging, etc. Personally I think all fine pieces of jewelry should be treated as such and removed before such activities.
    My daughter was once given an expensive and gorgeous 14k gold necklace with a white topaz gemstone, she wore it all the time, even swimming and showering, after awhile the topaz turned a gray color. She thought the stone was probably fake but I told her that even fine gemstones can be damaged through misuse...after all not everything's a diamond.

  2. You got that right. A topaz is not a hardy diamond! Exposure to sunlight can fade some gemstones although in the case of your daughter's white topaz, you're probably right about the misuse.


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