Samurai Swords and Watch Chains — the Birth of Jewelry in Japan

There’s no getting away from it — smartphones have taken over across the world. Japan too, of course, is awash with them, and where just a little while ago manga, pocket sized novels, or manic thumbing at garakei (“galapagos keitai” — the old, folding-style Japanese mobile phones) were the standard time-wasters on the train, now old and young alike swipe

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happily at their iPhones and androids during the morning commute.

But, although they might have made our lives a lot “smarter” (?), there’s one thing that is getting lost in these swipe and tap times. Straps. The iPhone doesn’t come with a strap fixture, and with it a long Japanese tradition could be coming to an end…

True, the end of the craze for incredible strap collections, championed by TV personalities like Becky, might not seem too much of a shame. But in fact straps in Japan have a long and interesting history. Most people are familiar with netsuke, but there’s another side to the story, connected to the world famous Japanese sword smiths, and to the development of Japan’s unique jewelry industry.

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You can see the menuki beneath the lacing on the handle this beautiful early Edo period sword. (Photo:
Menuki depicting tiny sword smiths at work. (Photo:

Before the coming of the westerners, and the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese didn’t wear jewelry. Women’s ornaments were mainly exquisite hairpins and combs, and obidome, decorations on their kimono belt, while men would carry purses tied with the famous netsuke toggles, mostly carved from wood or ivory. But some of the most detailed and fabulous decoration for men went into their swords, and besides the actual sword smiths themselves, there was a whole industry of souken kanagu — sword decoration — craftsmen.

A cute tsuba sword hilt protector, showing two little mice reading at the shrine. (Photo:
Crabs and kouhone water lilies on these sword decorations.(Photo:

Crafted in gold and bronze alloys, the minute decorations on the scabbard (fuchi and kashira), and handle decorations (menuki) on swords could be extraordinarily detailed, indicating the wit and fashion sense of the owner. Insects and animals were especially popular, often in the hope that they would give the swordsman a little extra luck in battle.

A praying mantis. No doubt its fierce fighting technique was intended to give the swordsman an advantage in battle, although by the expression on this little fella’s face, he doesn’t look as though he would hurt a fly. (Photo:
A spider battles with a horse-fly on this menuki. You can see the colored alloys clearly. (Photo:

But, after the Meiji Restoration, swords were prohibited, and these craftsmen needed a new outlet for their work. And it came first in the form of buttons.

As well as banning swords, the early Meiji government made strict western dress regulations for government officials, and the newly formed military, and for the first time Japan needed buttons. The souken kanagu craftsmen set to work making elaborately decorated metal buttons, and at the same time their work caught the attention of western dealers new to Japan.

The Japanese had long before perfected a technique for alloying bronze and gold — known as irokane — to create black and deep brown metal alloys which the western dealers had never seen before. The craftsmen were soon commissioned to make watch chain ornaments, watch and clock cases and inlayed gold and bronze decorations to satisfy the needs of a nineteenth century western fashion market in the throws of Japonisme.

Meiji period watch chain ornaments for the western market with a mix of western and Japanese motifs. Note the commemorative Asahi beer bottle at the bottom.( Japan Jewellery Craft School )

And then, as the Japan craze in Europe began to die down, the market for ornaments and jewelry in Japan itself began to open up more and more. Styles changed and western technology poured into Japan, and often the jewels and hairpieces themselves were symbolic of all that was new and modern — including, among other things, fabulously crafted tortoise shell and gold combs with designs based on the latest cutting-edge technology — telegraph wires!

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These hair combs look traditional at first glance, but look again. The design shows swallows, rooftops, and telegraph wires! Cutting-edge in the late nineteenth century. (Kochouan Collection)

And while the watch chains were often traditional Japanese motifs, modern items such as pencils and pocket knifes were popular in the west, and the chain commemorating fifteen years of Asahi Beer bears a striking resemblance to the Bandai miniature bottles produced just a few years ago.

Bandai’s miniature bottle strap series — identical to the Asahi watch chain from a hundred years before, only in plastic not alloyed metal. (Photo: Bandai)

The popularity of Japanese metalwork in the west and a gradually increasing domestic market in the late nineteenth century led to the establishment of Japan’s oldest jewelers, such as Uyeda Jeweler and Mikimoto, many of which are still going strong today. And it was the souken kanagu craftsmen who produced their works, and their techniques, quite different to those of jewelry in the west, were based in the Japanese sword.

Japanese swords are hugely popular with collectors around the world, of course. Apart from the incredible blades, when you look at the details and decorations on them it’s easy to see why. And while even a basic Edo period sword might set you back thousands of dollars, you can pick up gorgeous little menuki, fuchi and kashira decorations for just a few hundred. Maybe you could even fix them to your smart phone, and keep the tradition alive?

With thanks to Akio Seki (Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Museum), Tokka sword specialists, and the Kochouan Collection.