In Japan, a destination for jewelry lovers
KOFU, Japan – For most Japanese, Yamanashi Prefecture, just southwest of Tokyo, is known for its vineyards, hot springs, and fruit, and home to Mount Fuji. But what about its jewelry industry?
“Visitors come for the wine, but not so much for the jewelry,” said Kazuo Matsumoto, president of the Yamanashi Jewelry Association. Yet Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi, with a population of 189,000, is home to around 1,000 jewelry-related businesses, making it the largest jewelry producer in Japan. It’s secret? The presence of rock crystal (tourmaline, turquoise and smoky quartz, to name just three) in its northern mountains, is part of a generally rich geology. It’s all part of a tradition that dates back two centuries.
Located just an hour and a half by express train from Tokyo, Kofu is surrounded by mountains on all sides, including the southern Japanese Alps and the Misaka Range, with spectacular views of Mount Fuji (when it’s not). hidden behind the clouds). A few minutes walk from Kofu station stretches the park of Maizuru castle; the castle tower has disappeared, but the original stone walls remain.
According to Matsumoto, the Yamanashi Jewelry Museum, opened in 2013, is the best place to learn about the prefecture’s jewelry industry, especially the design and polishing stages of the process. In the small but comprehensive museum, visitors can try their hand at polishing precious stones or processing silver in various workshops. During the summer, kids can fill a four-leaf clover pendant with a colorful glassy glaze as part of a cloisonne-themed exhibit. (On August 6, the museum announced it would temporarily close to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infections; on August 19, it announced it would be closed until September 12.)
Although Kofu has restaurant and store chains similar to most medium-sized Japanese cities, it has a relaxed vibe and a nice small town atmosphere. On a visit earlier this month, everyone seemed to know each other; Mr. Matsumoto was greeted by several passers-by as we walked around town.
“It looks like a family community,” said Youichi Fukasawa, a craftsman born in Yamanashi, who demonstrates his skills to visitors in a workshop inside the museum. He specializes in the prefecture’s signature koshu kiseki kiriko, a gemstone cutting technique. (Koshu is the old name of Yamanashi, kiseki means gemstone, and kiriko is a cutting style).
The patterns, mostly set in a traditional way, are intentionally engraved on the back of the gemstone and can be seen on the other side. It creates a sort of optical illusion. “Through the dimension, you can see the art of kiriko, and from the top and the side, the reflection of the kiriko cut,” Mr. Fukasawa explained. “Each angle shows a different reflection.” He demonstrated how to achieve different patterns of kiriko using different types of blades and adjusting the grain size of the abrasive surface used in the cutting process.
The techniques all originate from Yamanashi and have been passed down from generation to generation. “I inherited the techniques from my father, who was also a craftsman,” Fukasawa said. “The techniques are essentially the same as those of the past, but each craftsman adds his own interpretation, his own essence.
Yamanashi’s jewelry industry has its roots in two different fields: crystal craftsmanship and decorative metallurgy. Chika Wakatsuki, the museum’s curator, explained that in the mid-Meiji period (late 19th century), they were combined to produce personal adornments such as kimonos and hair accessories. Enterprises equipped with machines for mass production began to appear.
World War II, however, took a heavy toll on the industry. In 1945, according to the museum, most of Kofu Town was destroyed in air raids and the traditional jewelry industry that the town was proud of was in decline.
“After the war ended, the industry rebounded due to the high demand for crystal jewelry and Japan-themed memorabilia from the occupation soldiers,” Ms. Wakatsuki said, as she displayed small ornaments engraved with Mount Fuji and five-story pagoda designs, as if the images were frozen inside the crystal. During the period of rapid economic growth in post-war Japan, as the tastes of the population became more selective, the Yamanashi industry began to manufacture premium jewelry using diamonds or gemstones from color set with gold or platinum.
“But since people mined the crystal freely, it led to accidents and problems, and the supply ran out,” Ms. Wakatsuki said. “So mining stopped about 50 years ago.” Instead, large quantities began to be imported from Brazil, and Yamanashi’s mass production of crystal items and jewelry continued, with the market expanding both to Japan and abroad. .
Yamanashi Prefectural Jewelry Art College, the only non-private jewelry school in Japan, opened in 1981. Located opposite the museum, on two floors of a commercial building, the three-year college welcomes students hoping to acquire a mastery of jewelry. The school has a capacity of 35 students per year, for a total of about 100. Since the start of the pandemic, students have come to school half the time for practical lessons; other classes have been moved away. There are rooms for the processing of precious stones and precious metals; another dedicated to wax techniques; and computer labs, equipped with two 3D printers.
On a recent visit to a grade one class, where students learn the basics of the trade, 19-year-old Nodoka Yamawaki was practicing carving copper plates with a sharp tool. She chose to engrave an Egyptian-style cat surrounded by hieroglyphics. “It took me a lot longer to come up with the design than it did to burn it,” she said.
One floor below, in a workshop-like classroom, a handful of third-year students sat at individual wooden tables covered in black melamine resin, laying the last gems or polishing their project. mid-year school the day before the deadline (Japanese school starts in April). They each imagined their own creations of rings, pendants or brooches.
Keito Morino, 21, was putting the finishing touches on a brooch, a silver structure that he paved with garnet stones and pink tourmaline. “I was inspired by JAR,” he said, referring to the company founded by contemporary jewelry designer Joel Arthur Rosenthal, as he flaunted a print of an artist’s butterfly brooch. As for his plans after graduation in March 2022, Mr Morino said he has yet to decide. “I want to be involved in the creative aspects,” he said. “I would like to work for a few years in a company to gain experience, then open my own studio.
After the Japanese economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the jewelry market contracted and became stagnant, while facing issues such as imports of foreign brands. Yet the employment rate of former students is high, exceeding 96% between 2017 and 2019, according to the school. Job postings for Yamanashi-based jewelry companies cover a long section of wall in a school hall.
Today, jewelry made in Yamanashi is mainly exported to popular Japanese brands such as Star Jewelry and 4 ° C, but efforts are being made by the prefecture to establish its Yamanashi jewelry brand, Koo-Fu (a game on Kofu ), and compete in the international market. Made by local artisans using traditional techniques, the brand offers affordable trendy collections and a bridal line.
But the number of local artisans is declining, said Fukasawa, who graduated from the school 30 years ago (he now teaches there part-time). He believes that technology can play an important role in making jewelry crafts more popular with young people. He acquired a large Instagram account.
“Yamanashi artisans focus on making and creating, not selling,” he said. “We are the opposite on the business side, because we traditionally stay behind the scenes. But today, with social media, we can express ourselves online.
He added: “As craftsmen we were invisible, but not anymore.”