In 1971 George Sawyer was in his workshop behind his Minnesota home when his brother-in-law stopped by to show him something he had purchased at an arms show. It was a WWII Japanese army sword, apparently standard issue. But when George removed the handle of the blade, he discovered a signature engraved in the steel’s distinctly swirly pattern. When he tracked down the signature, he discovered it was that of Japan’s Living National Treasure swordsmith. The sword was a work of art that had been commissioned by a wealthy family and used during the war. This was George’s first introduction to the beautiful and challenging art of mokumé gane.
George found the history of the piece and the patterning of the metal fascinating, which prompted him to start experimenting on his own to discover how the swirls in the metal had been created. He quickly found that precious metals don’t stick together effortlessly like steel, and the patterning was difficult to achieve. George experimented with a myriad of metal processes including forging, rolling, fusing and high temperature solder. Eventually he worked out his patterning process by folding and bonding the metals in a manner similar to that used by the Japanese swordsmiths. The process, which he invented and perfected, allowed him to keep the edges of the different metals crisp and clearly defined.
George was the first to bring gold mokumé gane to the market as jewelry and the first to use precious metals in his patterning. When he started making mokumé, a term that simply describes the distinctive “wood grain” pattern, the only examples were found in Japanese sword blades. There were early Japanese objects of layered copper and shakado that were carved and engraved in swirly patterns and were intended to look like carved lacquer work. There were pieces composed of patinated copper alloys that had a marble-like pattern. But there was nothing with the defined mokumé “wood-grain” pattern that was so distinctive in the swords.
When asked how he gets the metals to bond together, which is incredibly tricky, George replies: “alchemy-voodoo-magic.” He goes on to explain that it is extremely difficult to make a sheet of mokume into a three-dimensional piece. It just doesn’t want to behave; the metals harden at different rates and the maker has to be an extremely adept fabricator.
These technical aspects of working with mokumé gane are why so many metalworking jewelers love it—they love the process and the challenge. To create a beautiful piece of metal, and then be brave enough to cut it up and play with it to attempt to make a wonderful piece of jewelry is difficult. But what makes a great piece of jewelry is also originality, creativity, and a distinctive personal style. The goal is to make work that is original, fascinating, and beautiful and that no one has ever seen before. It isn’t just about process, technique, color, pattern, or sculpture.
George purposely designs patterns to complement the sculptural shape or designs the shape to complement the pattern. Sometimes it is like making a picture with a frame. The jewelry is the frame and the mokume is the picture. He makes poetry and paints pictures with his work; it is not just about the process and the materials. It is art.
“If you are going to make a great piece of jewelry, the pattern needs to fit the piece,” says George. “The pattern needs to relate to the shape of the piece. Sometimes the work is more like an impressionist painting instead of wood grain or swirling water images.”
George was a humanities and art history major in college and aspired to be a sculptor. He is completely self-taught when it comes to jewelry. By chance, he got a job out of college at one of the most prestigious racing car design and build shops in the country, Kar-Kraft. It was literally a metal-working industrial studio, and he was an assistant to the prototype shop manager. From that vantage point he was able to watch and learn about the art of metal fabrication. In essence they were building mechanical sculpture. When he left the job, he took one of the great Le Mans racing cars with him, which he later sold for the funds to take a year to devote to jewelry and purchase essential equipment.
“At Kar-Kraft I absorbed invaluable metalworking techniques, but more importantly, I learned about turning concept into reality, pride of workmanship, and how passionate people can elevate their work into art,” he says. And the rest is history, an on-going living history.
George has a few words of wisdom for emerging jewelry designers: Apprentice. Gather your skills. Immerse yourself so your work has its own unique voice, which will eventually define you in the world. Otherwise you will be lost in a sea of sameness. Be original. Do not chase the market. Create poetry. Speak your heart. Make art.
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