Jewellery and Japan

Jewellery as a concept in Japan traditionally differed greatly from Western perspectives. Originally, the term ‘jewellery’ was associated with practical objects, like swords or combs, to describe the intricate designs and decoration on these items. Since then, the Japanese tradition of using these embellishments on everyday items has transitioned to use on jewellery as we know it today.

The Traditional Use of Jewellery

Damascening is a traditional form of Japanese art that first began by being used on sword-hilts. Sword decoration was known as souken kanagu and, interestingly, was one of the first forms of jewellery in Japan. The designs chosen for the sword hilts and other items often reflected nature and other quintessentially Japanese designs such as Sakura, pagodas and mountains. Popular materials used in each design were agate, coral and ivory, particularly for items like combs. Another type of ‘jewellery’ traditionally used in Japan was Inro, small handcrafted boxes or cases worn by men to carry their personal belongings, much like the modern day wallet. Ojimi was a carved bead that was used to keep the boxes closed. In terms of jewellery resembling anything close to what we consider it to be today, Magatama is the earliest recorded object that can be called ‘jewellery’. This was a comma-shaped figure made from jade originally and later glass. Magatama were worn on a chain or thread as a necklace by men from about 1,000 BCE through to the 6th century CE. Whilst jewellery as decoration similar to Western standards became popular amongst geisha and courtesans in the Edo period (1603-1868), it wasn’t until after 1868 that it became fashionable amongst all classes of women, following Western influence.


When asked to explain what Japanese jewellery looks like, what might come to mind other than pearls which are now associated with this country, is the traditional Kanzashi hairpin. This ornament was first worn some time in the Jomon era (c.10,000BCE-300CE) as a way for women to keep their hair neat. During this time, a thin stick or rod was thought to possess powers of warding off evil spirits, and so these hairpins were considered important for protection. This symbolism also suggests that Kanzashi were initially worn as good luck charms rather than ornaments, fitting in with the concept of Japanese jewellery traditionally needing to have use. By the Edo period (1603-1868), these hairpins became very fashionable and popular amongst ladies. Common types of these hair pieces include the Tsumami Kanzashi, which is made of silk and combines different colours. Another popular variety is the Hana Kanzashi; these are predominantly made in Kyoto as they are used by maiko (trainee geisha) and are designed with a different theme for every month.

Japanese Shakudo

Shakudo refers to a low gold content alloy that is used in jewellery and ornaments and was originally employed to embellish katana fittings. This included the tsuba (guard at the end of the grip) and Shakudo was used as the base for inlays and accompanying patinas. After the samurai era, this effect was expanded into a layering process that made a mixed metal laminate (mokume-gare). Currently, the art of Shakuda can incorporate any damascened ornament or piece of jewellery. Today’s designs often use gold and copper to achieve the trademark blue or purplish hue associated with this effect.

Jewellery After Westernisation of Japan

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan undertook major global exploration, opening up to the rest of the world for the first time. In this period, Western influence also swept through Japan, changing many things including fashion. Jewellery common in Western cultures such as necklaces, rings and bracelets started to infiltrate the accessory market in Japan. The techniques traditionally used for the embellishments on practical items were modified for these new kinds of jewellery that were now becoming popular amongst Japanese women. It would also soon come about that Kokichi Mikimoto would create the cultured pearl and establish a monopoly on the pearl market after he saw how popular Western-style jewellery was. In terms of nation-wide mass production, the button was an item that became popular to embellish with original Japanese techniques. The modification of buttons in this way emerged with the introduction of the Western-style military uniform after 1868, where buttons were being used on a large scale for the first time. The original Japanese spins on these Western products were highly popular in the West, sparking huge trade deals between Japan and the rest of the world. Popular items for Japanese embellishment included watch chains and clock cases.

Jewellery on Atelier Japan

Atelier Japan showcases many different kinds of stunning jewellery that draw on the old tradition of Japanese culture and embrace the new. Every piece has been carefully and skilfully crafted by our makers, Zinlay, Kazariya-Ryo and Karafuru.